Of the five candidates running for governor of Massachusetts, Republican Charlie Baker is the only one who explicitly mentions welfare reform as a campaign issue.
He is the only one to issue specific “welfare reform priorities.” He is the only candidate to mention welfare in his campaign ads. A recent pro-Baker super PAC spot even points out that his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley “still has no plan to fix welfare.”
Many of the reforms Baker says he wants — including mandatory job training for adults on public aid, reducing benefit extensions, and raising the work requirement exemption age to 66 — were approved this summer by the Legislature. And work requirements for welfare recipients, which Baker also touts, have been in place since the 1990s.
“Look, when you’re a candidate, you make proposals on lots of things,” Baker said in an interview. “It’s important to make clear to people that I’m going to be enthusiastic proponent of implementing the reforms.”
But critics say Baker’s focus on welfare is aimed at solidifying support from his conservative base — and an effort to appeal directly to disaffected voters resentful of those receiving public assistance.
“I’ve been doing this 42 years, which means I’ve seen every iteration of political people and operator thinking if they can slam poor people on welfare it seems to help their votes,” said John Drew, president of the Boston antipoverty organization ABCD. “I’m seeing that now, and I’m not happy with it.”
Welfare reform is an issue that voters who identify themselves as Baker supporters care deeply about — even if the general public does not rank it as a top issue, according to recent polls.
“People who are focused on the welfare system are people who are more likely to vote for Baker,” said Steve Koczela, president of MassINC Polling Group which conducts polls for WBUR.
A recent MassINC/WBUR poll asked voters how they would respond to a candidate who made welfare reform a major priority. Seventy percent of those supporting Baker said they would be “much more likely” to vote for the candidate. By comparison, 41 percent of voters supporting Coakley answered the same way.
Of the seven campaign issues voters were asked to rank in a recent poll by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and WBZ, welfare reform came in at No. 7 with 4 percent.
Still, one in eight families in Massachusetts is touched by a variety of public aid programs, according to the state. The Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children program —commonly called welfare — provided aid to 42,888 families in August, the lowest number in the past five years.
Kevin Peterson, director of the voter initiative New Democracy Coalition and a Baker supporter, said Baker’s approach to welfare reform is “a very earnest and sympathetic approach to addressing the needs of poor people.”
And while Peterson thinks his candidate is serious, he also said, “I think voters across the Commonwealth must hold him entirely accountable around creating jobs for low-income people because absent of jobs, welfare reform makes absolutely no sense.”
For Baker, welfare reform is not a new issue, though the tone of his pitch has softened. During his 2010 campaign against Governor Deval Patrick, Baker created fake electronic benefit cards that said: “Deval Patrick’s Massachusetts EBT Welfare Card. Swipe me for booze, cash, cigarettes, and/or lottery tickets at taxpayers’ expense” — an effort seen as belittling to those who rely on public assistance.
“I regret a lot of things I did last time,” Baker has said, the faux EBT card among them.
Instead, this year’s campaign includes one television advertisement in which Baker, talking with his 17-year-old daughter, says: “We can make Massachusetts great and create jobs by controlling spending, lowering taxes, and requiring work for welfare.”
A second Baker ad, also airing in Spanish, shows Baker laughing with patrons in a barbershop, fist-bumping a little girl, and walking with former governor William F. Weld, as a narrator says he “got people off welfare and made Massachusetts first in jobs.”
And the pro-Baker super PAC ad touted his “plan” to clamp down on “widespread welfare abuse.”
Baker’s opponents describe this as political posturing. Asked about their own welfare reform priorities, they talk mainly about reducing poverty, with measured mentions of stopping fraud and abuse.
Coakley’s campaign, for instance, notes her plans for reform include punishing stores found to have committed EBT fraud by removing their ability to sell alcohol, tobacco, and lottery tickets. Her campaign said, “She believes we need to go further; we need to ensure that every person is able to get on the ladder and lift themselves up.”
Baker talks about this too, pushing for an increase to the earned income tax credit, which economists say is an effective way to help low-income families. But he also talks about welfare rules.
Last month, he traveled to Worcester to promote a controversial program that limits how long residents can remain in public housing if they’re not working or in school. And in May, when he released his “welfare reform priorities,” Baker declared that “for too long, transitional assistance has created a culture of dependence.”
Politicians, political analysts, and advocates who are critical of Baker’s focus say it is little more than a plan to get elected on the backs of poor women and children.
“What he’s trying to do, as you well know, is say ‘I’m a manager, and the Commonwealth has been mismanaged over the last couple of years, and I’m going to come and clean up,’ ” said state Representative Thomas Conroy, chairman of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.
“The point is, with welfare there’s nothing to clean up. We have reformed this thing to death. What’s missing is money. What’s left to do is fund the programs — workforce training, GED, ESOL training, childcare.”
Amid political campaigns, debates about welfare can become highly partisan and inextricably linked to issues of race and class. Researchers say much of that tension pivots on perceptions of poverty and who is deserving of assistance.
They note that since the days of Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign speech vilifying a welfare abuser in Chicago, a narrative has emerged that associates African-Americans with public aid .
“It’s a way to divide the electorate by racial and ethnic lines,” said James Jennings, a noted specialist in race, politics, and urban policy at Tufts University who wrote a book on welfare reform. “In some people’s mind, when you say ‘welfare reform’ it’s people, families of color, black and Latino women. So . . . it’s a message. It’s a way to blame the other.”
Tim Buckley, a Baker campaign spokesman, objected to the assertion that the push for welfare reform contained racial overtones. The campaign is trying to appeal to a wide swath of voters, Democrats in urban corridors, suburban independents, and conservative, party faithful.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.