AUGUSTA, Maine — Making a moral case for Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare agenda, his administration released a report on Wednesday that touted income gains for people culled from Maine’s food stamp rolls.
It revolves around the Republican governor’s 2014 move to reinstate federal work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49.
To receive food stamps, they now must work 20 hours per week or go through school, job training or volunteering. These requirements were waived in nearly every state during the recession, but many states — particularly those led by Republicans — have brought them back in recent years.
When LePage began the process of reinstating the work requirements, he said Maine “should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout” and should “eliminate generational poverty,” but advocates feared it would simply slash rolls and that job opportunities would be uneven statewide.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew called the work requirements part of the state’s efforts to provide “a pathway out of poverty” on Wednesday, releasing a report with LePage’s policy office that says a subset of the nearly 6,900 people booted from the program for noncompliance saw a cumulative 114 percent increase in wages from the last three months of 2014 to the same period in 2015.
It’s another example of LePage’s Maine becoming a case study for — or following in the footsteps of — national conservatives, but the data are limited and more analysis is needed to gauge the policy’s true impact.
Conservative groups have been touting Maine’s reforms recently, and this report is similar to a national group’s study of changes in Kansas.
The Wednesday news conference in Augusta came after Mayhew gave a preview of the food stamp data to the news arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The foundation heralded the changes as a national example in a February report noting that Maine reduced its number of able-bodied adults getting food stamps by 80 percent after the change — from 13,000 in December 2014 to less than 2,700 by March 2015. If the federal government did the same, the group said it could save $9.7 billion per year.
Also in February, the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability — a Florida group run by Maine native Tarren Bragdon, the co-chairman of LePage’s 2010 transition team — released a similar report on Kansas’ food stamp changes.
DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said the administration used methodology from the Kansas report and “made it work in Maine” and “the idea’s the same behind it.”
But the report was produced in-house, unlike the most famous report issued by the LePage administration — a 2014 report on Maine’s welfare system from the Rhode Island-based Alexander Group, whose contract was canceled after the Bangor Daily News reported that portions of the report had been plagiarized.
However, the report is limited by its data. More analysis will be required to understand the policy’s impact on the full able-bodied population and by region and a top Democrat is skeptical.
The analysis found wages for three groups affected by the policy change grew faster than the statewide increases for that same period of time. Those groups included people who did not meet work requirements and stopped receiving SNAP benefits, those who met requirements and those who found jobs that made them ineligible for the program.
For all groups, the analysis included only those who reported Maine wages in any given quarter.
At most, about a third of the 6,866 people who got food stamps in December 2014 and could not meet the new work requirements received wages in Maine in any given quarter through 2015. Over the entire year, a little less than 60 percent of those people had any wages reported to the Maine Department of Labor.
Also, there were no geographic breakdowns on the impact, with Mayhew saying the “immediate focus” was on top-line wages, saying that’s “fundamentally the bottom line here” and the change is helping employers fill vacant jobs, though the department will continue to refine the analysis.
State Economist Amanda Rector, a co-author of the report, emphasized in an email that it’s a preliminary analysis, looking specifically at reported wages from the three affected groups.
Edwards said the administration will likely do further analyses that incorporate IRS data to supplement the missing state labor data, but there’s no set date for that.
“Since this was just a preliminary analysis, we didn’t attempt to make any conclusions about causality,” Rector wrote. “A more detailed analysis would be needed for that, bringing in additional data sets that would give us a larger picture of the outcomes.”
Political wrangling over the issue will continue. Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he’s “skeptical” about the policy’s effect, saying past reports have been “propping up this administration’s political positions.”
“They continue to argue that simply by throwing people off a program that they’re making people more successful,” he said.