AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers with assets topping $5,000 and who don’t have children will be ineligible for food stamps under a new plan announced Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The assets to be counted if the new rule is applied include bank account balances, snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, jet skis, all-terrain vehicles, recreational vehicles, campers and other valuable assets, according to a news release. The $5,000 asset test, which is defined in a federal law but has been waived in Maine in recent years, will not include the value of a home or a household’s primary vehicle.
DHHS already has access to a database of statewide vehicle registrations which would be used to enforce the asset test, according to DHHS spokesman David Sorensen. Implementing the new rule does not require legislative approval.
Democrats and Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Mainers, resisted the change on the grounds that it does nothing to address the problem of finding routes out of poverty for the close to 200,000 Mainers who collect food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“I don’t see any motion on that front,” said Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners.
A public hearing on the proposed new rule is scheduled for Oct. 6 in Augusta.
“Most Mainers would agree that before someone received taxpayer-funded welfare benefits, they should sell nonessential assets and use their savings,” said Gov. Paul LePage in a written statement. “Hardworking Mainers should not come home to see snowmobiles, four-wheelers or jet skis in the yards of those who are getting welfare. Welfare is a last resort, not a way of life.”
DHHS estimates that the rule change would affect about 8,600 people who are on food stamps, but Democrats said the reason Maine has waived the use of the asset test is because social safety nets such as food stamps are designed to catch people before they fall far enough to hit rock bottom.
“Common sense says that someone with a ton of cash on hand isn’t truly needy, but Gov. LePage and Commissioner [DHHS Commissioner Mary] Mayhew are willing to make someone’s ability to eat contingent on whether they’re able to sell their beat-up snowmobile in Uncle Henry’s,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “What next? Grandma can’t buy groceries until she sells her engagement ring? They need to focus on growing economic opportunity and moving people into sustainable employment rather than adding a layer of bureaucracy to government that does nothing to save taxpayer dollars or help people in real need.”
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, applauded LePage and DHHS for the initiative.
“Our limited state tax dollars must be used for those most in need and not those who would abuse our system of supporting those who should be receiving this type of assistance,” said Fredette in a prepared statement.
Hastedt said Maine and 37 other states waive the asset test, partially because such systems have high error levels, cutting people off benefits when they can least afford it while mistakenly providing benefits to others.
“There are very few families that have significant assets that get this benefit, and it’s extremely administratively burdensome and error-prone to have these tests in the law,” said Hastedt. “Somebody works at a paper mill and they are laid off for three months and they need help during that period. Are they supposed to sell everything they’ve worked for over the years for a temporary period of employment?”
Maine already has reduced the number of Mainers collecting food stamps with a rule implemented by the LePage administration that requires able-bodied 18- to 49-year-old adults to either be working or in an active job search in order to receive food stamps.
According to a data website called assetsandopportunity.org, states have been able to claim waivers from SNAP asset tests since 2002 but most states that went that direction waited until passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, which made changes to the program.
A total of 35 states have eliminated asset limit tests for SNAP/food stamps and 39 states, including Maine, don’t use asset tests for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. All states were required to eliminate asset tests for Medicaid in 2014 under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Maine and the majority of states, 42 in all, require an assets test for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. In Maine, the limit for TANF is $2,000 in assets.
“When people see that some are using welfare as a first line of defense to keep their boats and motorcycles, rather than using welfare as a safety net, it hurts the public perception of the program,” said Mayhew in a prepared statement.