AUGUSTA, Maine – Advocates for the low-income, veterans and the homeless turned out in Augusta to express their strong opposition to a proposal from the Department of Health and Human Services to cut off food stamps or SNAP benefits to able-bodied, childless adults after three months unless they work 20 hours a week, volunteer or undergo job training. Advocates say the proposal establishes an “unrealistic and unachievable” expectation that will overwhelm food pantries and soup kitchens and create hardships for people, especially young veterans.
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew didn’t attend the public hearing herself, but in a telephone interview with MPBN she said the goal is to make people more self sufficient, to give them job training, get them comfortable in a workplace setting and engaged in their communities. She says there are currently more than 7,000 jobs posted on the Maine Jobs Bank.
“We have got to put people back to work, to support themselves, to support their families, to promote independence and self sufficiency,” Mayhew says.
But Thomas Patacek, a veteran-turned-outreach worker at the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, says the most important thing he needed to become self sufficient was the ability to buy and cook his own food with benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, ” ’cause standing in line at a soup kitchen isn’t normal. Going to a food pantry doesn’t make you feel stable.”
Patacek says he spent several years in the Navy, spending a tour in Desert Storm. When he came back he says he found himself homeless and jobless. He spent an entire year living in a shelter. And he says being able to shed his dependence on the shelter and the soup kitchen was a huge emotional boost. “SNAP really provides that sense of normalcy and stability and dignity,” he says.
The proposed rule change is aimed at able-bodied adults who do not have dependents. DHHS estimates about 12,000 people will be affected. Veterans, says Donna Yellen, are likely to represent a disproportionate share. Yellen is the director of programming at Preble Street, which runs the largest soup kitchen in the state of Maine and also provides housing support to veterans.
“We estimate that this can affect 2,800 veterans who are young and between the ages of 18 and 50,” she says. “And many of our veterans are post-911 veterans that are back from having served and they’re going through difficult times because of our economy.”
Like so many other people receiving assistance, veterans, says Yellen, want to work and they want to get training. But their options are limited. If they’re homeless they may not have a cell phone or computer. Advocates say jobs that are available on the job bank may require training or education that applicants don’t have. In addition, public transportation in rural areas is extremely limited.
And if someone doesn’t have a car or can’t afford to buy gas, getting to work or fulfilling the new SNAP requirements will be daunting, says Chris Hastedt of the group Maine Equal Justice. Hastedt says when it comes to finding work, some SNAP recipients must already clear a certain threshold “that requires them to register for work. It requires them to accept a suitable job if one is offered to them and it requires them to keep their job. In other words, they can’t quit their job or they can’t reduce their hours. If they do any of those things, their benefits will be terminated for a period of time.”
As for volunteering opportunities, advocates from several nonprofit agencies testified that they already have so many volunteers they can’t take walk-ins – or, in the case of the Roman Diocese of Portland, can’t accept volunteers unless they have completed a three-hour training program.
But the bottom line, say advocates, is that food pantries and soup kitchens are already stretched too thin. Amy Gallant of Preble Street says one thing is clear: If the proposed rule is adopted, more people will go hungry in Maine.
“Over the past few recent years we’ve gone from seventh hungriest state in the nation to the third hungriest state in the nation,” Gallant says, “and this kind of action will push us to second, behind Alabama, which is absolutely where Maine should not be in terms of hunger – or even first.”
If adopted, the proposed rule would take effect in January. Those who lose their SNAP benefits would not be able to reapply for three years.