Advocates decry LePage rule change that could kick 12,000 off food stamps

AUGUSTA, Maine – A proposed rule change by Gov. Paul LePage that could see about 12,000 food stamp recipients lose eligibility for the program on Jan. 1 was decried by advocacy groups Tuesday during a public hearing held by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Representatives from soup kitchens and food pantries, as well as anti-poverty, homeless prevention and faith-based organizations, spoke out against the rule change that would institute a three-month limit on benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

SNAP benefits can only be used for food, and monthly allotments are based on income. The federal program, which is administered by states, is designed to offer food subsidies to low-income individuals and households.

The department announced in July that it will require able-bodied adults without dependents, between age 18 and 49, to meet federal SNAP work requirements. That means 20 hours of work, school, job training or certified volunteering.

Those who don’t meet the requirement will lose their benefit after three months, and cannot receive benefits for more than three months in any 36-month period. The new rule will likely take effect Oct. 1.

The work, volunteering or training component already is a requirement of SNAP, but since 2009, Maine has applied for and received a waiver from the federal government because of its high unemployment rate. DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew has said the state will no longer seek that waiver because the state’s unemployment rate has improved.

Mayhew said the rule change will affect about 12,000 SNAP beneficiaries.

Many of the opponents of the rule change said that linking employment or volunteerism to food assistance was unfair – especially given that many parts of Maine still see unemployment rates near 7 or 8 percent.

"I just don’t think the jobs are there, nor are the training opportunities," said Joe Conroy, coordinator of food programs at Portland’s Preble Street, which runs the largest soup kitchen north of Boston.

Suzanne Lefreniere, a representative of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which represents all 193,000 Maine Catholics, said "people who want to work should not be punished because of local economic conditions outside their control."

Lefreniere also said SNAP helps relieve food pantries, soup kitchens, parishes and other charities from being overrun with needy, hungry Mainers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, says Maine is the third hungriest state in the country.

"The faith community and the private sector are vital in the fight to combat hunger," she said. "But government has an indispensible role in safeguarding and promoting the common good of all."

The public has until Aug. 31 to submit comments on the proposed rule change to DHHS. The department is not obligated to make any changes to its plan because of the testimony offered by advocates on Tuesday, but it is required to respond.

Mayhew made it clear Tuesday that she intends to move forward with the rule change, and she emphasized several joint programs between DHHS and the Department of Labor aimed at helping low-income Mainers transition to job training or work.

"The intent is to support people out of poverty, to create pathways around education, training, to lead them to jobs," Mayhew said. "We believe that the focus of this department should be to help people support themselves and their families, and to break the cycle of dependency on these programs."