Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has already changed policies to make it harder for low-income people in Maine to put food on the table. Through his budget and a bill unveiled Tuesday focused on further restrictions to the state’s public assistance programs, the governor seeks to make some of these changes permanent. The Legislature should ensure this doesn’t happen.
In 2014, the governor unilaterally reinstated work requirements under federal law for low-income, working-age adults without children receiving food stamp benefits. 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.
But the work requirement often isn’t feasible, so states can apply for a number of exceptions. During and after the Great Recession, for example, states — with the federal government’s blessing — didn’t have to enforce work requirements, allowing people to eat during a time of limited economic opportunity. And even when the economy is stronger overall, states can seek federal permission to relax the work requirements in areas with high unemployment.
More than 10,000 adults lost their food stamps after work requirements returned in Maine — a change that didn’t have to happen. Many small towns throughout rural Maine have unemployment rates that are high enough that they would qualify for exemptions from the work requirements.
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 results of these two changes have been clear.
— The number of people receiving food stamp benefits 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 16 percent, to 186,000 from 222,000. Between 2014 and 2015, Maine posted the largest decline in the nation in its food stamp caseload.
— As food insecurity has eased nationally, it has grown worse in Maine. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the percentage of Maine households that experience food insecurity — 15.8 percent in 2015 — has grown over the past decade and exceeds the national average. In 2015, Maine had the third highest rate in the nation of households with very low food security; 7.4 percent of households consistently struggled to secure enough food.
— With food assistance more and more limited, hungry Mainers have turned to food pantries, making an emergency source of sustenance a way of life. In a survey of 2,000 food pantry users conducted last year by Good Shepherd Good Bank and the social services organization Preble Street, 82 percent of patrons said they visited their local food pantry at least once per month. A quarter of those surveyed said they had lost their food stamp benefits in the past year, and 59 percent said they were using food pantries more in 2016 than in the previous year.
The LePage administration, however, isn’t finished with its efforts to make it harder for people to eat.
The governor’s two-year budget proposal currently before lawmakers would enshrine in state law a prohibition on Maine ever applying for exemptions from the federal work requirements. That means if Maine went through another Great Recession, residents’ incomes fell drastically and job opportunities dried up, the state wouldn’t even have the option of waiving the federal work requirements so low-income adults without kids, who have lost their jobs, could eat.
Food stamps are a source of help available to people in times of need. But as LePage makes it increasingly difficult for low-income people to afford enough food, he’s ensuring fewer people can access the help when they need it. He’s ensuring that the next time the economy collapses, that food pantry lines across the state will only grow longer.