Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, has a history of making controversial comments, from telling the NAACP that the group can "kiss my butt" to charging that a Democratic legislative leader "claims to be for the people but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline."
Recently, LePage made another comment that has attracted national attention.
On Oct. 22, 2013, a blogger for the Bangor Daily News posted an audio clip from a speech LePage made in Falmouth, Maine. Here’s what the blogger wrote:
"Informed that the event was wrapping up, LePage said he had two more points to make. The first was just one word: ‘energy.’ The second was, he said, in reference to ‘workforce development.’
"‘About 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work,’ said LePage.
"On the recording you can hear a member of the audience ask, ‘What?’ LePage repeats himself. ‘About 47 percent. It’s really bad.’"
The blog post inspired a flurry of media attention, in part because LePage’s comment echoed the one from the 2012 presidential campaign in which Republican nominee Mitt Romney said that 47 percent of the American people are "dependent upon government." Romney’s comment was widely considered a blunder that hampered his bid for the White House.
But what about the substance of LePage’s remark? Was he correct that "about 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work"? The strength or weakness of Maine’s labor market isn’t out of the mainstream; the unemployment rate in August 2013 was 7.0 percent, putting it in a six-way tie for 22nd place nationally.
We contacted LePage’s press office for supporting evidence, but no one responded. A spokeswoman for LePage did send Huffington Post a statement, saying in part that "the governor understands that not everyone who is dependent on taxpayer dollars is 'able-bodied,' but he does believe that everyone, regardless of their ability or physical condition, can contribute to society in a meaningful way."
The Census Bureau found that Maine’s estimated population in 2012 was 1,329,192. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in August 2013, Maine had 659,059 people employed. So by the roughest calculation, Maine had 670,133 people not working, or about 50 percent.
This number would suggest that LePage is in the ballpark. But calling this a "rough" calculation is too kind. It’s actually a silly way of calculating it.
First, doing it this way suggests that everybody -- no matter how old or young -- should be working. The numbers change dramatically if you exclude Maine residents up to age 18 and over 65 from the statistics.
In 2012, Maine’s 18-to-64 population was 836,898. Using this as the denominator means that about 21 percent of Maine residents were not working.
What about LePage’s reference to "able-bodied people"? The Census Bureau has estimated that in 2011, Maine had 101,000 people aged 18 to 64 who have a "health problem or disability which prevents them from working or which limits the kind or amount of work they can do."
If you subtract this group, then there were 735,898 "able-bodied people" age 18 to 64 in Maine, and only 10 percent of them were not working.
Finally, in August 2013, there were 49,966 unemployed people in Maine. These are people who have looked for work recently but have not found it. If you add these to the number of employed Maine residents, then just 3.6 percent of able-bodied Maine residents aged 18 to 64 are neither working nor actively looking for employment.
That’s far off from the 47 percent LePage claimed.
It’s possible to quibble about the specifications we’ve used, said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution. For instance, you could get a bit closer to LePage’s 47 percent figure if you counted 16- and 17-year olds or people up to age 74, who have been working in growing numbers in recent years.
Still, Burtless said, "even if you tried to include all the ‘able-bodied’ Maine residents past 65 in your calculations, I'm pretty confident you'd find Gov. LePage's claim to be ridiculous."
LePage said that "about 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work." Unless LePage thinks newborns and nonagenarians ought to get off their tushes and find a job, this is a ridiculous claim.
In reality, only about 10 percent of able-bodied Maine residents aged 18 to 64 aren’t employed. And if you include those who are actively looking for work but who can’t find a job in today’s poor economy, the figure drops as low as 3.6 percent. We rate LePage’s claim Pants on Fire.