Gov. Paul LePage stepped into political hot water last week after his office released a statement that characterized Social Security and Medicare benefits for seniors as “welfare.”

LePage’s office was trying to put a positive spin on newly released data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that showed Maine’s personal income grew at the slowest pace in New England during the first quarter of 2014. The governor attributed the growth elsewhere in New England to an increase in “transfer receipts” from the federal government, which include Social Security payments, Medicare and Medicaid disbursements, and unemployment insurance checks.

“It doesn’t matter what liberals call these payments, it is welfare, pure and simple,” LePage said in the written statement.

LePage this week is trying to cover his tracks with seniors. His re-election campaign has started placing automated, pre-recorded calls in which the governor says he doesn’t believe Social Security is “welfare” and blames newspapers and political opponents for mischaracterizing his statements, the Portland Press Herald reported.

The episode proves the rhetorical power of the word “welfare” to cast a negative light on a wide array of government programs and the people who benefit from them. The governor didn’t want seniors, who turn out to vote in high numbers, to think he was characterizing them as undeserving welfare recipients.

Welfare-weary colonials

LePage has made welfare an overriding focal point of his tenure as governor, and he’s used the term to try to shift public opinion to his side on a variety of issues.

As his administration fought against the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, LePage branded the proposal a “welfare expansion.” As he criticized efforts in the Legislature to try to maintain funding for revenue sharing with municipalities, he said it was time Maine eliminated “welfare for communities.”

Meanwhile, LePage kept a laser focus this past legislative session on proposals aimed at restricting recipients’ use of their public benefits.

In repeatedly evoking welfare, LePage is appealing to a deep-seated American weariness toward assistance programs for the poor.

“Going back to colonial times, there was always this concern that assistance [from local towns] would undermine the work ethic” of those receiving it, said Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University who has researched public opinions toward welfare. “You do see that kind of rhetoric and kind of cynicism toward welfare recipients forever, basically, even before there was a United States.”

Public opinion research over the years has revealed a desire among Americans to help those who are less fortunate. But that altruism doesn’t translate into support for welfare programs themselves, which many Americans view as helping people who don’t actually need the help.

These views, according to Gilens, author of the 1999 book “Why Americans Hate Welfare,” are even common among welfare recipients and those who are eligible for benefits.

“I do think that the public has long been cynical toward welfare recipients and unsupportive of welfare spending and, to a substantial degree, largely misinformed about how long people are on welfare generally and the racial composition” of welfare recipients, he said.

In the political arena, the arguments in favor of welfare cutbacks and reforms are often, on the surface, framed as budgetary matters. But the focus on welfare reforms can be effective because it appeals to a commonly held moral desire not to encourage a certain way of life — namely, a life of dependency that discourages people from working and encourages poor women to have more children, Sharon Hays said in her 2004 book “Flat Broke With Children.”

Crowning the welfare queen

In 1975, The New Yorker magazine published an extensive and excruciatingly detailed, 50-page profile of “A Welfare Mother.”

Carmen Santana (whose real name was not used), a native of Puerto Rico living in New York City, had received welfare assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children for 14 years. She had nine children from multiple fathers, and one of her daughters living on her own also received welfare.

“She makes no effort to conceal her thick neck, her big breasts, her big belly, and her enormous thighs,” the profile read. “Because of her weight, she is unable to take off her fashionable platform shoes unaided. Dancing, she quickly loses breath, but she goes on dancing. She is generous and lazy.”

Over the years, Santana had occasionally worked and concealed that income from the Department of Welfare; she sent long lists of needed clothes and furniture to the welfare office in order to receive funds to cover the purchases; she concealed an arrest record; and she received a welfare check meant for seven people when only five lived in her apartment — including her boyfriend, who worked, but whose income Santana didn’t report.

The profile was detailed and nuanced.

“Sometimes, when being on welfare seems more arduous than working, Mrs. Santana thinks about getting a job,” the writer said about one of Santana’s encounters with the welfare office.

The piece appeared just as the issue of welfare fraud was gaining prominence in media accounts, and many magazines and TV news programs featured profiles of welfare mothers. The vast majority of such coverage featured welfare recipients who were not white — although white people made up the majority of welfare recipients.

“[B]y seeing a black welfare mother in the television news, viewers were more likely to attribute the cause of her poverty to individual failings, rather than to any public policy,” said Frank Gilliam Jr., a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a 1999 essay called “The ‘Welfare Queen’ Experiment.”

In 1976, Ronald Reagan capitalized on growing, often racially motivated, public skepticism about welfare programs in his first presidential campaign. He used anecdotes, speaking of public housing complexes with gyms and swimming pools, and he spoke of a woman convicted of welfare fraud whom the Chicago Tribune had dubbed the “welfare queen.”

During the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, welfare budgets and enrollment in assistance programs shrank. And the Republican focus on welfare programs that force recipients to work ultimately prevailed in the battle for public opinion.

While Republicans today commonly play to anti-welfare sentiments and characterize many types of public spending as welfare, many Democrats do the same thing.

Democrat Bill Clinton campaigned for the presidency in 1992 promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Clinton signed the Republican-approved 1996 welfare reform bill that transformed Aid to Families with Dependent Children into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and instituted work requirements.

And today, even when Democrats stand up for the cash assistance programs that fit the traditional definition of welfare, many rail against “corporate welfare,” using the term in a way that implies it’s unworthy and showing the rhetorical power of “welfare” to move public opinion.

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.