November 20, 2018
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A tale of two economies: Despite continued growth, many Americans struggle to get by

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Dennis Keyser, a truck driver with Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine, weighs produce that just arrived at the food bank's Hampden warehouse, Aug. 22, 2016.

There has been a lot of positive economic news in recent years. The stock market has tripled in value over the last decade. In many parts of the country, including Maine, unemployment rates are at historic lows. But one important number — wages — has remained stagnant since plunging in 2009 as the Great Recession hit the U.S.

With inflation included, hourly wages for the average American worker are lower than they were a year ago.

As a result, many Americans report struggling to get by financially. Nearly 40 percent of Americans reported having troubling meeting at least one basic need — such as paying rent or buying food — last year, according to a survey by the Urban Institute that was released this week.

More than 23 percent of respondents reported an inability to afford food, making it the most common hardship reported, followed by not being able to pay a medical bill (18 percent) or skipping medical treatment because of the cost (18 percent).

These numbers cut across all income groups, a finding that surprised Urban Institute researchers, who expected to find struggles among low-income Americans, but not middle-class Americans. Hardship rates were higher for low-income households, with 40 percent reporting food insecurity, for example.

“I hope that people will see,” Michael Karpman, a co-author of the study, told CBS Moneywatch, “that even though we’re in a relatively healthy economy, a lot of families are still having difficulty meeting their basic needs for food, housing and health care.”

These findings offer a stark warning as Republican lawmakers, including 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin, continue to push for further restrictions on federal safety net programs, particularly food assistance. Additional work requirements for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were included in a House version of the Farm Bill, but rejected by the Senate. Those two bill will soon be reconciled and Poliquin continues to push for the work requirements, despite warnings from officials at Maine’s largest food bank that they would be harmful.

In Maine, the largest group of SNAP recipients is households with children, next are households including people with disabilities and older Mainers over age 60, and working families. Ten thousand Maine SNAP recipients are veterans.

The average SNAP benefit is $1.40 per person per meal.

When Gov. Paul LePage’s administration rolled back the federally funded assistance program, it caused thousands of Maine adults to lose SNAP benefits. Today about 174,000 Maine residents receive SNAP, down from 222,000 in September 2014, a drop of more than 20 percent.

The need for food assistance didn’t go away, however.

About 16.4 percent of households in Maine are food insecure, greater than the U.S. rate of 13 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which measured average rates of food insecurity between 2014 and 2016. Maine went from ninth worst in the country to seventh worst.

During a Wednesday tour of the organization’s Auburn Warehouse, Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale warned the congressman that more work requirements would add needless bureaucracy and make more Mainers food insecure.

Poliquin responded that the best solution was to grow the U.S. economy, the Sun Journal reported. “A rising economy lifts all boats,” he said.

The Urban Institute’s research show this isn’t reality. The US economy has been rising for years, but far too many working Americans aren’t being lifted. Instead, they struggle to pay medical and utility bills and to buy food.

Adding new requirements for government assistance or reducing that assistance won’t make this problem go away.

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