Our attitudes toward providing assistance to vulnerable individuals and families through government safety net programs arise from our core values. New research shows that we, as represented by our two major political parties, increasingly disagree on what those values are. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the gap between values held by Republicans and Democrats is as large as it has ever been since the Center began studying these issues in 1994. Divisions have grown on many topics including immigration, pathways toward peace, racial discrimination, environmental protection, and helping those in poverty.
In a 2017 survey of more than 5,000 adults, the Pew Research Center asked respondents if they thought “the government should do more for the needy.” At 71 percent, nearly three times as many Democrats as Republicans (24 percent) said yes. This gap has increased substantially in recent years. Just 10 years ago nearly twice as many Republicans (45 percent) thought the government should do more to help those in need, while support for such assistance among Democrats has been increasing, rising 17 percent in the past six years.
These values play out in our social welfare policies, including how we assist people who do not have enough to eat. Even as the nation recovers from the Great Recession, a significant number of individuals and families in Maine communities continue to struggle. While employment opportunities may be more plentiful than five or six years ago, many jobs do not provide livable wages or reliable hours, leaving many unable to meet their basic needs.
As Maine lags behind the rest of the country in its economic recovery, it is perhaps not surprising that we have a particularly high rate of food insecurity. But what may be surprising to many is that Maine’s rate of food insecurity is a striking 26 percent higher than the national average. Nearly one in six Mainers was considered food insecure in 2016, meaning they had difficulty providing food for all members of their households at some point during the year. Maine ranks as the seventh worst state for food security. Even more troubling is that nearly half of these households (45 percent) are considered to have “very low food security,” with only two states ranking worse than Maine in this category.
How did we become a state that allows so many to go hungry?
Such changes do not happen in a vacuum. Under Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, state policy changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — known as the food stamp program — have reduced the number of recipients by thousands by instituting time limits, re-imposing asset limits for older Mainers and people with disabilities, and placing photos on SNAP EBT cards. Most states have rejected these policies that deny food to so many in real need.
Currently at the federal level, President Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican-led Congress have put forth budget plans that include tax changes that will favor the rich while cutting billions of dollars from safety net programs, including SNAP.
Currently 189,000 Mainers receive assistance through SNAP. Nearly two-thirds of Maine households receiving SNAP include children, 43 percent include older adults and people with disabilities, and 40 percent are low-income working families.
A recent survey of 430 Mainers receiving SNAP provides evidence of how important this program is to vulnerable individuals and families in our state, and how destitute and hungry they would be if the program were to be cut further. Most said that SNAP enables them to get enough to eat and that the benefits reduced their stress by allowing them to buy food and still pay other bills. But of great concern given the current budget proposals, are the three in five respondents who said they would get very little or no help from family, friends and charities if they were to lose their SNAP benefits.
By helping people buy the food they need, SNAP both improves public health and provides an economic stimulus to our communities.
To repeat the question posed by the Pew Research Center: “Should the government do more to help the needy?” The current Republican administrations in Washington and Augusta are saying “no.” I don’t believe this reflects the values of our state or country, where most would say our neighbors should not go hungry.
Sandra Butler is a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine in Orono. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.