As of Jan. 1, about 6,500 Maine residents were no longer eligible for food assistance. As Gov. Paul LePage announced earlier this year, the state would no longer seek a waiver to extend Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to so-called childless adults unless they work, volunteer or are in job training.
This makes sense — in theory. LePage is right to want to break the generational cycle of poverty, but taking away benefits doesn’t solve this problem. Jobs and training opportunities must be available, and wages must be high enough to cover living costs.
“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 July in announcing the food stamp policy shift. “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.”
To get people “back to work,” however, jobs must be available. Unfortunately, Maine’s economic recovery is slow, and jobs are especially hard to find in rural areas.
Maine ranks 44th in the country in terms of job recovery since the 2008 recession, according to data from the Maine Center for Economic Policy. “If we were keeping pace with the rest of the country, we would have at least 16,000 more jobs right now. That’s more than 1,000 jobs for each county in Maine,” House Speaker Mark Eves said recently in response to a press release from the governor about Maine’s unemployment numbers.
The work and education requirement is already included in SNAP rules, but since 2009, Maine has applied for and received a waiver from the federal government because of its high unemployment rate, which reached a high of 9.7 percent in February 2010.
LePage touted an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent in November, down from 6.4 percent in November 2013. According to LePage, the total number of unemployed workers has decreased by more than 5,400 year to year. Private-sector jobs in Maine were up by 7,300 from 2013 while government-sector jobs declined by 400, according to LePage.
Unemployment rates vary widely by county. In Piscataquis County, the jobless rate is 8.1 percent; it’s 7.5 percent in Washington County. On the other end of the spectrum, the unemployment rate is 4.1 percent in Cumberland County and 4.4 percent in nearby Sagadahoc County.
In addition, the training programs mentioned by the LePage administration are only available near the state’s largest cities, out of reach for the state’s rural population.
Rather than pull the waiver for the entire state, leaving it in place for the state’s rural counties would have made sense to ensure additional support for low-income adults in those areas.
Enforcing the work requirements for SNAP benefits is part of a larger LePage administration push to reduce public assistance that relies, in part, on shaming the people who receive these benefits. The administration is currently in the midst of a legal battle with Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association over general assistance benefits. LePage has said he’ll withhold money to towns that give GA to undocumented immigrants.
Last month, the federal Department of Health and Human Services warned the state it was in danger of losing federal administrative funding for SNAP it is doesn’t fix problems with its program to put photos on electronic benefits cards. The primary problem is that the state has not made it clear that the photos are optional, according to a report on the federal review. Also, the state needs to work with retailers to ensure they know that family members can use EBT cards if they know the PIN numbers, even when their photos don’t appear on them. Many retailers believe they should only accept the cards if the photo matches the person using it because DHHS training has been vague.
Helping people escape poverty takes a long-term commitment and policies that truly help with employment, child care, housing and other elements of daily life. Simply making it harder to be poor doesn’t reduce poverty.
“In rare situations, a few remarkably talented people emerge from grinding poverty to become successful,” Chris Ladd, a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago, wrote on his blog GOPLifer in March. “Sometimes someone survives a plane crash. That doesn’t mean plane crashes shouldn’t be avoided or that the victims are to blame for their fate.”