AUGUSTA, Maine — While there are indications that Maine’s economy is slowly rebounding from the recession, the federally funded food stamps program is growing significantly, helping more poor families get food and, in some ways, the state’s economy as a whole.
“It’s really a combination of factors that are causing this increase,” said Barbara Van Burgle, director of the Office for Family Independence. “One is that we have a lot of families where a parent is working but they do not make very much and are still eligible for the food supplement programs. That is 45 percent of the families.”
The latest statistics indicate there were over 248,000 Mainers — up 7.5 percent from a year ago — benefiting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called the food stamp program. That is nearly 128,000 Maine households. The average monthly benefit per person is $129.17.
“This is a supplemental program” Van Burgle said. “It is not meant to be the only source of food for a family.”
The federal government pays for all of the benefits and half of the cost of administering the program. Any person with income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level is eligible for the food assistance program.
The federal poverty level is $10,890 a year for an individual and $22,350 for a family of four. Van Burgle said in a poor state such as Maine, a lot of families with working parents are eligible for benefits.
“We have a lot of families in this state where the parents are working hard, some at two jobs, but they just do not make a lot of money,” she said.
Van Burgle said another factor in Maine’s numbers is the state’s demographics. She said more than 10 percent of those on the program are over 65 years old and retired. She said as more Mainers retire without adequate retirement incomes, the more will qualify for food assistance.
Jim Breece, an economist at the University of Maine and a member of the State Revenue Forecasting Committee said another factor in the increasing number of Mainers using the program is the growing number that have been out of work so long they are no longer counted in the monthly unemployment numbers.
“They are called discouraged workers,” he said. “They no longer are being counted … but they are still there waiting for more jobs to be created so they can go back to work.”
Breece said with the very slow recovery from the recession, many are working part-time to make some money but they still qualify for food assistance. He said the unemployment rate is not very useful in measuring what is a happening in the economy because it stops counting workers after they have exhausted benefits and no longer tracked by the unemployment system.
“We have a gap now where the unemployment rate looks better than it really is because the work force, they way they measure it, has gone down so much that the unemployment rate is distorted,” he said.
Charles Colgan, a University of Southern Maine economist and former state economist specializes in researching Maine‘s economy. He agreed with Breece that the stability in the unemployment rate does not reflect the turmoil in the job market as out of work Mainers seek jobs long after they are no longer being counted or receiving unemployment payments.
“Incomes have really stagnated at where they were at the bottom of the recession,” he said. “People are looking for jobs, but there has been little job growth. Overall the income picture has not improved at all.”
Colgan said he is not surprised that the number of Mainers getting food assistance continues to go up. He said while incomes have not increased, some expenses have, particularly energy costs.
“The income-support programs, like food stamps, will be at fairly high levels for another year before they start to trend down, assuming the job market starts to pick up,” he said.
Colgan also said the program is acting as an economic stabilizer for the state. Last year more than $356 million in benefits were paid out in the state, and that is certain to increase in this budget year. He said all of that cash is immediately spent for food and has an important stabilizing effect.
“It does not help the economy improve,” he said, “but it prevents things from getting worse.”