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home : • politics : • government
January 27, 2020

5/14/2015 8:38:00 AM
Eye on Augusta: Maine "Ranked #1" in Cutting Food Assistance, Food Pantries Struggle Under the Strain
Come Spring Food Pantry in Union
Come Spring Food Pantry in Union
by Andy O’Brien

"Maine Leads Nation in Food Stamp Reduction," the Maine Department of Health and Human Services boasted in a press release last week.

"New data from the Federal Nutrition Service shows that Maine ranked first in the nation for declines in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [or "food stamps"] dependency in 2014," it said.

While national enrollment in the program dropped an average of 1.1 percent over the past year, the number of Mainers receiving food stamps went from 235,771 in January 2014 to 201,557 in January 2015, representing a 14.5-percent drop.

The LePage administration credited the decline to its new work requirements for SNAP recipients, which cut off over 10,000 so-called "able bodied" adults without dependents (referred to as "ABAWDs" in DHHS speak) from SNAP between December and January of this year.

"As of January 1, 2015, Maine began requiring ABAWDs to work for 20 hours, volunteer for one hour per day, or attend an educational program in order to maintain their benefits," DHHS stated. "The number of ABAWDs on SNAP dropped from 12,000 to 2,500 thereafter."

Prior to the new rules, SNAP recipients were always required to register for work and were disqualified if they turned down a suitable job, but the new policy actually limits food assistance to three months during a three-year period regardless of whether they are able to find work or not.

"It's good to see Maine as a leader in reforming our welfare programs," said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew in a statement. "With a clear focus on jobs and common sense reforms which incentivize self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, we are helping Mainers to begin the transition from poverty to prosperity."

"From Poverty to Prosperity"

However, critics of the governor's policy say that it has been poorly implemented and has further exacerbated Maine's hunger problem, which affects over 15 percent of Maine households, according to the USDA. The federal 1996 Welfare Reform Law, signed by President Bill Clinton, allows states to apply for a waiver to exempt individuals who live in certain high-unemployment regions from the three-month SNAP limit; 44 other states received waivers this year, but Maine was one of six states that didn't, resulting in a loss of about $12 million in federal SNAP money. Maine has requested a waiver every other year since the recession hit in 2008.

On May 4, Democrats on the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee voted for bill LD 1052, which would require DHHS to make a request for the waiver for high-unemployment regions of the state.

Testifying in support of the bill on April 23, Brenda Bernier of Hudson said she and her husband Gerald had experienced the effects of the new rules firsthand. She said after years of working as a chambermaid and a cashier, she became disabled and was approved for Social Security disability benefits. She said her husband worked in the woods for many years and later as a construction worker and a parts person at a junkyard before suffering an injury in a car accident. However, she said he was denied SSDI because he was told he could do sedentary work. She said Gerald was able to get MaineCare until the LePage administration cut off coverage for so-called "childless adults," and the couple does not earn enough to qualify to buy subsidized private insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

"He has diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and suffers from severe back pain as a result of his auto accident," said Bernier. "On a bad day he has to spend the majority of the day in bed because he's in such pain. He used to take medication for his diabetes, high blood pressure and pain, but since his MaineCare ended, he's been trying to treat those conditions through diet alone."

Bernier said her husband then became one of the 10,000 individuals who lost SNAP benefits due to the governor's action. She said that even though he is not "able bodied," having no access to health care, the couple cannot get a statement from a doctor indicating he is unable to work. She said he is currently appealing the SSDI denial.

"So now we are both trying to get by on my $733 per month disability benefits and $175 in food supplement benefits," she continued. "Needless to say, it's not working out very well. We managed to scrimp and save while we were working and own our home outright. However, we have to pay property taxes, heat, electricity, and now we have to spend a significant amount of money on food each month. We have a disconnection notice for our electricity and need $400 to keep our lights on. We have no idea where that might come from. We've been going to a local food cupboard, and as much as we appreciate the few boxes and cans of food we get from them, it's not particularly healthy food, so I'm more worried than ever about my husband's health. Given my diabetes, my own health suffers as well when we can't afford healthy food."

In the same DHHS press release announcing the #1 ranking in cutting food assistance, Mayhew said she was "truly appalled" that Democrats are calling for her department to reapply for a waiver.

"This bill must be stopped when it reaches the full Legislature if we want to continue this positive trend of work over welfare that has marked Governor LePage's tenure," said Mayhew.

Lack of Volunteer Opportunities to Meet Requirement

One of the other major problems with the LePage administration's SNAP work requirements is that there aren't the resources to support the work training and volunteer programs for people transitioning from SNAP, said Christine Hastedt of the low-income advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners. Hastedt noted that DHHS created only 900 new short-term training slots to serve the 10,000 people affected by the change. She said that opportunities are only available within a 30-mile radius of Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, which leaves out many in rural areas as well as people without transportation. She said that the training slots only provide 9.75 hours of training per week even though SNAP recipients are required to have 20 hours of training a week or face losing food assistance under the new rules. She added that DHHS hasn't taken any meaningful action to help SNAP recipients find volunteer opportunities.

"It has been suggested that volunteer positions are plentiful and easily accessible to this population," said Hastedt. "Again, that is far from the reality. I have spoken with nonprofits all over the state that are highly motivated to help people in this situation, but simply do not have the resources to do so. Some municipalities and some nonprofits have said no to volunteers because they fear the potential liability that they would have to assume."

According to United Way of Greater Portland and United Way of Eastern Maine, staff have been fielding an increased volume of calls from people seeking to volunteer in order to avoid losing their food assistance.

"The callers report that they have been trying, with limited success, to navigate and fulfill the requirements while facing lack of transportation, language limitations, snow cancellations, scarce employment or volunteer opportunities, and limited job training programs," said Alysia Melnick of the United Way of Greater Portland in testimony before the HHS Committee.

Melnick said that her organization has found it particularly difficult to match volunteers with available opportunities not only due to skills gaps and lack of transportation, but also simply a lack of available volunteer poisitions.

"No matter how hard they are trying, situations beyond their control can cause some recipients to fail to meet requirements, lose SNAP benefits, and go hungry or turn to increasingly overwhelmed soup kitchens and food pantries," said Melnick.

Hunger Increases as the Economy Improves

Despite an improving economy, in December the AIO Food Pantry in Rockland had a 44-percent increase in visitors over the previous year, according to Board President Sherry Cobb. AIO also gave out 36 percent more in heating vouchers compared to 2013, which increased by another 19 percent in January.

Carol Watier of the Come Spring Food Pantry in Union also said her organization has seen its number of visitors increase by a third due to actions at the state level. That puts both pantries at about the state average for demand, as the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which helps stock the state's food pantries, reports that it distributed 35 percent more food in 2014 than 2013, for a record 21 million pounds of food.

"Why is this?" said Cobb: "Dead-end jobs, few jobs of any kind, low wages, restricted and irregular work hours, no healthcare [and] a shredded safety net."

Cobb said she is recommending to the AIO board that it add 35 percent to its budget for the next fiscal year to cover the increased demand for food and other necessities. The organization is also starting its "Weekend Backpack" program to send food home with 200 schoolchildren who get free breakfasts and lunches at school but don't get enough to eat on weekends. According to the Department of Education, nearly 60 percent of students in Regional School Unit 13 qualify for free or reduced lunch. In order to qualify for free lunch, a household of three must make less than $27,700 per year. For reduced rates, the threshhold is $36,600.

Watier said the amount of food the Come Spring Pantry has received from the US Department of Agriculture is also half what it was in the past, and the pantry is still in need of staples like eggs. She said that with the spike in demand she has had to increase the pantry's funding requests to Union and Appleton in the hopes that voters will approve them at their town meetings.

"I don't know how long we can meet the need,"

said Watier. "And LePage had this change occur in the winter, when a lot of people [were] laid off and having difficulties in keeping their homes warm. Combine this move on LePage's part with his denial of expanding Medicaid, and life is getting real tough for my food pantry folks. There need to be changes."

Cobb said it's "nonsense" to suggest that all of the 10,000 people who have lost their SNAP benefits are "leaving dependency."

"Now they are dependent on food pantries and we've never been enough, even when people still got food stamps," she said. "This approach to problem solving defies comprehension. Myopic, arrogant, cruel."

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