Economy straining social services in state

Posted Dec. 22, 2010, at 10:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — With unemployment at record, or near record, highs in many states, agencies all across the country have been feeling the pinch, and the state of Maine is no exception.

Recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract show that in the last two years, the state has added 20,000 new people to the ranks of its unemployed, pushing its corresponding unemployment rate to 8 percent. That is a jump of 3 percentage points in two years.

“Certainly, we have a lot more people looking to take advantage of our services, including job training,” said Adam Fisher, a press liaison with the Maine Department of Labor.

Barbara Van Burgel, with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said other state agencies are also feeling the stress. In the past two years, the expenditures for general assistance in Maine have increased approximately 35 percent, as have the number of families on Maine’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as the food stamp program.

“In the last few years, the caseload has gone up,” she said. “In the last several months it is starting to level. That’s a good sign.”

When those in the Department of Health and Human Services want to know what is really happening with the economics of the state, Van Burgel said food stamp statistics is the first point of reference. That program is open to all people who meet the income guidelines, which is not true for many of the other programs, such as Medicaid.

“The program that mirrors the economy the closest is the SNAP program,” she said.

However, while unemployment statistics provide an indication of the economic situation in the state, Maine officials say the problem goes beyond simple unemployment. Fisher said there are many businesses struggling to make ends meet as well, which puts pressure on them at payroll time.

“As businesses have had a harder time paying their employees, there’s been more work for our wage and hour investigators,” Fisher said. “It’s impacted different departments in different ways.”

Another thing that has not helped the situation in Maine has been its aging population. While many senior citizens may already be receiving some sort of federal benefits or assistance, they also have more needs than the rest of the general population.

“Demographically, Maine is the oldest state in the nation when you look at the average age of the population,” Van Burgel said.

Despite the challenges, Van Burgel said it could be worse for the state. Maine has not had to lay off state workers, unlike many other states.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate in that we’ve had level funding so we’ve been able to maintain our workers,” she said. “But our cases have gone up, so the caseload is greater.”

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