A woman checks her phone as a hiring sign shows at a Family Dollar store in Joliet, Ill., Friday, April 17, 2020. Credit: Nam Y. Huh | AP

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The need for Maine’s social safety net is steadily increasing as the coronavirus pandemic continues, with applications for food and cash assistance doubling since February and the state’s expanded Medicaid program seeing its biggest enrollment jump since implementation last year.

The numbers aren’t increasing nearly as much as unemployment claims, which have reached record heights since the pandemic began. But policy experts say safety net programs respond differently in times of economic trouble.

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Applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have increased by 47 and 52 percent, respectively, since February, according to Maine Department of Health and Human Services data. Total applications for MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid, increased by 18 percent in the same time period, from the start of February to the end of April.

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The numbers of people actually receiving the assistance, however, have grown more slowly.

The number of people receiving food stamps increased by 6 percent from February to April, and the number of families receiving TANF grew by 25 percent. Total MaineCare enrollment grew by only 2 percent, but the number of people enrolled in the state’s MaineCare expansion — low-income adults without children — grew by 15 percent in the same time period, the biggest increase since Maine received federal approval to expand the program last April.

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Growth in Medicaid could be lagging other programs because paying bills may have initially taken precedence over health care for those who lost their jobs and, as a result, their health insurance, said Ann Woloson, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care.

“People were concerned about getting a paycheck,” she said. “Now that many people have gotten unemployment or are waiting to qualify, health care is next on their list.”

The increase in people receiving food assistance likely reflects working families affected by the economic slowdown, Chris Hastedt, a policy advisor for Maine Equal Justice, said. Almost half of SNAP recipients in Maine are either elderly or disabled, she said, and were less likely to be affected by job market changes.

The state received $11 million to provide additional benefits for the program earlier this month amid what Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew characterized as a “surge in applications,” Maine Public reported.

How TANF — cash assistance for families with children in poverty — responds during an economic crisis is a different story, Hastedt said. More people are trying to access the program, she said, but changes over the past two decades have made it less effective at reaching its target population.

Only 18 percent of Maine families living in poverty received the assistance in 2018, a decrease from 73 percent from 1996, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center of Budget and Policy Priorities.

Maine implemented a 5-year limit on cash assistance under the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, leading to a two-thirds drop in caseloads from May 2012 to November 2018. The state also denies the majority of its TANF applications, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data. It denied 69 percent of the TANF applications submitted in the first six months of 2019.

The state made food and cash assistance easier to access during the pandemic on April 6. It suspended the work requirement for SNAP and extended the 5-year limit for TANF. No interviews are required for food assistance, and in-person interviews are no longer required for cash assistance.

The difference in application volume and new cases may be due to a lag period between applying and receiving benefits, Hastedt said. Denials could be the result of someone failing a program’s asset test — some programs limit the value of assets recipients can have — or receiving too much income because of the additional $600 in unemployment benefits provided for by the CARES Act, she said.

How much people are relying on another area of support, general assistance, is harder to quantify. In Portland — the region hardest hit by the pandemic — the city approved 1,054 requests in April, up from 764 requests in February. In Bangor, the number of approved applications increased from 239 to 246.

Aaron Geyer, who runs Portland’s general assistance program, said the city now staffs the department seven days a week to help people apply. It is hard to anticipate how much more the need might increase, he said.

“These are uncharted territories,” he said. “There’s no blueprint for a pandemic such as this. We’re just trying to be flexible and serve as the safety net.”

Watch: What does returning to normal look like?

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