AUGUSTA, Maine — After a five-year break, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services plans once again to require childless adults to work in order to receive help through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
The department announced Wednesday that it will require work, public service or job training for recipients who are between the ages of 18 and 49, who have no dependents living with them, who are not pregnant and not disabled.
That already is a requirement of SNAP, but since 2009, Maine has applied for and received a waiver from the federal government because of its high unemployment rate. Maine’s unemployment rate has dropped from a high of 9.7 percent in February 2010 to 5.5 percent last month.
“People who are in need deserve a hand up, but we should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a statement Wednesday. “We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work. We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”
Recipients will be required to work at least 20 hours a week or volunteer for a community agency for a certain number of hours, depending on the value of their benefit. They may also participate in approved job-training programs, including the Maine Department of Labor’s Competitive Skills Scholarship Program.
Recipients who don’t meet the requirement will lose their benefit after three months.
About 231,000 Mainers receive a total of $330 million in SNAP benefits.
According to DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, nearly 15,000 of those recipients — about 6 percent — are considered “Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents” by federal rules. Of those, 12,000 do not meet the work requirement.
Those 12,000 people receive about $15 million a year in benefits, a little over $100 a month each.
Mayhew said the LePage administration decided it would no longer waive the work requirement because the state’s economy and unemployment rate have improved and because departments are working together on job training for welfare recipients.
One such collaboration led to a pilot program between the DHHS Office for Family Independence and the Maine Department of Labor to provide employment and training for SNAP recipients in Augusta and Machias. Mayhew said the yearlong effort has not been successful, in part because it was voluntary.
That training program will be expanded to include Augusta, Bangor, Lewiston and Portland in October, just as SNAP recipients will be required to work, train or volunteer.
“This is not punitive,” Mayhew said. “This is, ‘How do we help people avail themselves of valuable resources that will improve their situation and connect them with meaningful jobs?’”
The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center applauded the department’s announcement Wednesday.
“Maine’s social safety net should be a temporary stop for Mainers on their way back into the workforce, not a permanent destination,” Communications Director Jonathan Haines said in a statement. “This policy will encourage work-ready adults to be self-reliant, independent and in control of their own financial and economic destiny.”
However, liberal advocates for the poor say this is the wrong time to make work a requirement for food.
“This would be a very different conversation if we were talking about a labor market in which there were plenty of jobs out there and you really could say that people who were not working, who could work, were just opting out,” said Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy. “In this case, you can’t say that. There are a variety of reasons why people are not working, one of which is there just aren’t enough jobs.”
He noted that labor statistics show 20,000 Mainers have been unemployed for 15 weeks or more, up from 9,100 long-term unemployed before the recession. And 42,000 Mainers are working part time but want full-time jobs, up from 21,400 before the recession.
Requiring work in exchange for SNAP “is the wrong approach at the wrong time,” Martin said.
Ann Woloson, policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said LePage was “setting up a false expectation that anyone in Maine can find a good-paying job that pays a livable wage.”
She added, “It ignores the fact that we lag behind in our response to the economic downturn in terms of job creation, especially jobs that pay a livable wage and lift people out of poverty.”
She pointed to the fact that Maine’s unemployment rate, while lower than its peak in 2010, is still higher than pre-recession, when it hovered in the 4 percent range.
She also took issue with DHHS’ assertion that the change will affect only 15,000 people. Based on a 2011 SNAP report, she believes about 25,000 people fit the “Able-Bodied Adults” category.
Mayhew said there would be list of exemptions to the rule, which will drop the number of people affected.
Woloson would like to see Maine waive the work requirement a while longer, particularly because SNAP recipients are still required to look for jobs. And if not a statewide waiver, she would like to see county-specific waivers for people who live in parts of the state with high unemployment rates.
Mayhew said she spoke with the governor about a county-specific waiver and the plan is to make the SNAP requirement statewide.
“People should not lose sight of the volunteer part of this equation that can fulfill this requirement,” she said.
The change must go through the rule-making-and-public-hearing process. It is scheduled to go into effect Oct. 1.
DHHS plans to notify affected recipients in the coming weeks.