Why do people who depend on safety-net programs often vote for candidates who want to cut those very programs? It’s a question that has puzzled many a social and political observer, and the answer is more complex than one might think.

That’s because the people in greatest need of government assistance are not actually voting against their best interests. They’re not voting at all.

On Friday, The New York Times published “Who turned my blue state red?” by Alec MacGillis, drawing heavily from the experience of Maine, which ranked third in the nation for food-stamp use in 2013. Last year, many towns with residents on public assistance threw their support toward the re-election of Gov. Paul LePage, who ran on a platform of cutting welfare programs.

Why? It’s the people a couple steps up on the income ladder who are more likely to vote for Republicans — the teacher, the convenience store owner, the construction worker — as they seek to distance themselves from people on public assistance, whom they see as embodying what’s wrong with their struggling town.

Then, the people at the very bottom of the ladder — who benefit from Democratic policies — just aren’t voting.

Kathryn Edin, a professor with Johns Hopkins University, described to The Times how the working or lower-middle class, many of whom may once have needed public assistance, perceive their situation:

“There’s this virulent social distancing — suddenly, you’re a worker and anyone who is not a worker is a bad person,” she said. “They’re playing to the middle fifth and saying, ‘I’m not those people.’”

Their reasoning has significant ramifications for the political parties. Republicans point out that people are recognizing the harms of government assistance, to draw favor for their initiatives. Democrats, meanwhile, struggle to get the very poor out to vote, to gain backing for the policies they defend.

“The best way to reduce resentment, though, would be to bring about true economic growth in the areas where the use of government benefits is on the rise,” wrote The Times. “If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities — not least by turning out to vote.”

Check out the full Times piece here.

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...