AUGUSTA, Maine — New Census data show that Maine had one of the highest rates of households accepting public assistance in 2010 despite the fact that the state’s poverty rate was not among the highest.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey released this week compared rates of public assistance for all 50 states.
In 2010, Maine saw 28,213 households accept public assistance, or 5.2 percent of the state’s population. That was an increase from the 4.9 percent of households that collected assistance in 2009.
Maine’s rate trailed only Alaska (6.7 percent) and was significantly higher than the 2.9 percent national rate of households accepting public benefits in 2010. At 1.5 percent, Wyoming had the lowest rate. No state saw a decrease in the number of households accepting assistance from 2009 to 2010.
Public assistance was defined by this survey as either Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal subsidy, or general assistance, an emergency benefit distributed at the municipal level. Supplemental Security Income and noncash benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps, were not included.
To qualify for public assistance benefits, both at the federal and local level, income guidelines must be met. Since Maine had such a high percentage of households receiving assistance, it seems as though the state’s poverty rate would be similarly high.
But data from the American Community Survey that compared poverty rates of all 50 states showed Maine’s poverty rate in 2010 was 12.9 percent, up from 12.3 percent in 2009 but well below last year’s national average of 15.3 percent.
In fact, Maine was in the middle of the pack for poverty, lower than most Southern states, some West Coast states and some Rust Belt states. New Hampshire had the lowest poverty rate at 8.3 percent. Mississippi, at 22.4 percent, had the highest number of households living in poverty.
Poverty status was determined by comparing annual income to a set of dollar values called poverty thresholds that vary by family size, number of children and age of householder. If a family’s pretax income is less than the dollar value of their threshold, then that family is considered to be in poverty.
The Census numbers mirror a report released last year by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, which called the growth of public assistance in Maine unsustainable.
“Maine has a proud tradition and a national reputation for self-reliance and a strong work ethic. Yet, our current welfare system robs families of the hope of a better life by trapping them in a system that promotes dependency and discourages hard work and independence,” Tarren Bragdon, who was then CEO of the center, wrote in the September 2010 report.
Ana Hicks, a senior policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said she couldn’t argue with the Census poverty statistics but said the public assistance data shown in the survey is flawed.
“With general assistance, there are discrepancies and different definitions from state to state, so I’m not sure it’s a one-to-one comparison,” she said.
In addition to analyzing states, the American Community Survey also calculated poverty rates for large metropolitan areas, defined as areas of more than 500,000 people. The only large metro area in Maine, according to the survey, was the Greater Portland area down to Biddeford. It ranked among the 10 lowest metro areas in the country for poverty.
The U.S. Census survey is a continual nationwide gathering of information designed to provide communities with reliable and timely demographic, social, economic and housing data. It replaced the Census’ long-form survey several years ago.
The new Census data could fuel suspicions already held by some that Mainers are abusing the system or that it’s too easy to get assistance in Maine.
Many conservatives, Gov. Paul LePage included, have argued that it should be more difficult for Mainers to get benefits, not easier.
Organizations such as Maine Equal Justice Partners disagree.
“We think if you’re going to have these programs — and we should have these programs — they should be accessible,” Hicks said.
LePage has pledged to tackle welfare reform again in January, likely as part of a supplemental budget. What elements might be included remain to be seen.