June 17, 2018
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Cutting programs to help the poor doesn’t eliminate poverty

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Food Pantry Coordinator Sue Elsaesser works with her volunteer staff before clients arrive on a March 2016 day in Brunswick. As food insecurity rises in Maine, more people are using food pantries.

The LePage administration likes to tout how it has reduced the number of people who receive social services in Maine. If fewer people get government help, the thinking goes, the problems that caused their need for help also have been magically eliminated.

Data show this isn’t true.

Take hunger. A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the percentage of people in Maine who don’t have enough food has risen. In the Pine Tree State, 16.4 percent of households reported being food insecure, on average, during 2014-16. During the previous three-year period, 2013-15, 15.8 percent of households reported being food insecure. Nationally, the percentage of food insecure households dropped from 13.7 percent to 13 percent in that time, continuing a downward trend. Meanwhile, Maine has risen two spots to become the 7th most food-insecure state.

According to the USDA, food-insecure households had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.

Maine ranked third in the nation for very low food security, which means the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources. In Maine, 7.4 percent of households reported very low food security; the national average is 5.2 percent.

Maine is moving in the wrong direction, not by chance or economic conditions outside its control but because of policies from the LePage administration that have punished poor families and individuals.

In 2014, the governor unilaterally reinstated work requirements under federal law for low-income, working-age adults without children receiving food stamps. Those receiving food stamps have to work or participate in job training at least 80 hours per month; if they don’t, they’re limited to three months of food stamp assistance every three years.

More than 10,000 adults lost their food stamps after work requirements returned in Maine, one of the first states to forgo a federal waiver for places with high unemployment.

In 2015, thousands more low-income adults lost food stamps when the LePage administration began denying the help to adults without children who had household assets of more than $5,000 — in the form of a savings account or a second vehicle, for example.

The number of people receiving food stamps in Maine has declined faster than it has in the rest of the nation. Since September 2014, the number of Maine people receiving food stamps has dropped more than 18 percent, to just over 182,000 in August from 222,000. Between 2014 and 2015, Maine posted the largest decline in the nation in its food stamp caseload.

It isn’t only food aid that has been taken away. The LePage administration also has put time restrictions on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits. It then used funds from the TANF to fund other state programs. Some of this spending ran afoul of federal law.

Thousands of Mainers also have lost health insurance through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, as the LePage administration has restricted eligibility.

Gov. Paul LePage also has threatened to forgo $8 million in federal funds for job training low-income, unemployed and youth seeking work. This jeopardizes career counseling, job training and education, on-the-job training and work experience services for a couple thousand Mainers. Some of those who use government assistance programs use these services to gain the required training and employment.

Cumulatively, these restrictions haven’t made poverty or hunger less of a problem. Instead, they have taken away needed assistance, leaving Maine’s poor to make difficult choices about where to spend their limited money. Increasingly, buying enough nutritious food is no longer possible for some of these struggling households. A growing number of Mainers are turning to food pantries for help.

As members of Congress consider cuts to programs like Medicaid and food stamps, they should look to Maine to see the real-world consequences. They’ll see that making assistance harder to obtain doesn’t magically reduce poverty or hunger. In fact, it makes everyday life harder for people trying to improve their lives. That doesn’t benefit anyone.

 


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