Propaganda in Maine: Waging a war of words around Medicaid as ‘welfare’

I once had an enlightening conversation with a friend who is a warzone correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation about how propaganda filters into our everyday vernacular.

“We don’t call them terrorists,” she said of suicide bombers who were spreading horror across Iraq while the U.S. and its allies were trying to achieve peace. “We call them militants.” She said the BBC doesn’t use “freedom fighters,” either.

“Terrorists” to me means someone whose primary motivation is creating terror among the masses. “Freedom fighters” draws an immediate sympathetic response and the implication of people fighting against oppression. “Militants” is somewhere in the middle, a more general term that describes a person engaged in military activities without reference to his or her motivations.

Democrats and Republicans are waging their own war of words here in Maine, with the dispute centered around whether Medicaid — or MaineCare, as Democrats prefer to call it — is or is not “welfare.”


In recent weeks, Maine Republicans have been working laboriously to create a conversation around their view that “welfare” programs need to be curtailed or at least reformed. More often than not, their efforts center around whether Maine should or shouldn’t expand its Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act. (The name “Affordable Care Act” in itself is propaganda, as is “Obamacare”).

Enough people have complained to me about the use of the word “welfare” to describe Medicaid and other programs that on at least two occasions, I have highlighted it in my articles.

There has been push-back. Brent Littlefield, Gov. Paul LePage’s chief political strategist, wrote a memo to reporters last week urging them to use the term “welfare.”

“For intellectual honesty in writing on Medicaid — and revisions to your stories today — the program should be referred to as ‘welfare,'” he wrote. To bolster his argument he cited a passage from the website which discussed growing expenditures in the Medicaid program.

“…Medicaid enrollment growth decelerated dramatically due to the combination of strong economic growth and welfare reform,” reads one passage highlighted by Littlefield. And from the same website, he cited: “1996 was the year of enactment for welfare reform.”

These snippets provided by Littlefield happen to mention “welfare” and “Medicaid” in the same sentence, but in my opinion they work against his argument because they refer to Medicaid and welfare reform as two separate things: Medicaid as a health insurance program for the poor and welfare reform as a much broader initiative that affected a range of social service programs in 1996.

House GOP spokesman David Sorensen addressed the same issue in a lengthy September 13 memo to reporters. Here’s an excerpt:

In Maine, the federal Medicaid program is called MaineCare, which in itself is a snippet of propaganda designed to elicit certain emotions sympathetic to the program. That was likely the impetus behind Democrats’ changing the name back in 2000.

According to Nicole Dyszlewski and Elaine Apostola, reference librarians at the Maine State Law and Reference Library, Maine started using the term “MaineCare” in Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s first biennial budget bill in 2002. However, the actual change was made two years prior in a bill in the 120th Legislature, LD 1303, An Act to Increase Access to Health Care, which was sponsored by then-House Speaker Mike Saxl. Here’s the relevant language:

Gov. Paul LePage attempted to eliminate the use of the term MaineCare in his first biennial budget bill in 2010:

That change failed to make it through the legislative process, and Medicaid in Maine continues to be called MaineCare. House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said through his spokeswoman Wednesday that Democrats are not interested in semantics, despite the fact they led the effort to introduce the term “MaineCare.”

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what word you use,” said Eves. “It is life-saving health care or medicine for people who are struggling to make ends meet.”

UPDATE (9/26/13, 10:15 a.m.) David Sorensen responded to Eves’ comment in an email Thursday morning that supports my premise about the power of words.

“Public opinion — and by extension, public policy — is shaped by semantics,” he wrote. “When Democrats ask people if we should accept federal dollars to bring more health care to Maine, who’s going to say ‘no’? But if you ask them whether state taxpayers who are already the most heavily taxed in the nation should bear the burden of expanding the third-largest medical welfare program in the country when alternative coverage already exists, you’d probably get a much different answer. … Medicaid has always been considered a form of welfare. We’re just responding to their wordsmithing.”

What words we use to describe the Medicaid program have no bearing on what the program actually does and may seem to be of scant importance to most Maine people. But then again, one of the most powerful and time-tested truths about propaganda is that it influences opinions covertly by inserting itself where it’s not expected.

With an election next year and both parties clamoring to win the public’s support on the issue of Medicaid expansion — oops, I mean MaineCare expansion — all the effort that has gone into naming and renaming the program is significant and may very well influence its fate. What both political parties want Mainers to forget is that “MaineCare,” “Medicaid,” “government health care for the poor” and “medical welfare” are all one and the same.





Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.