6,500 Mainers to lose food stamps

AUGUSTA – More than 6,000 Maine residents will lose their food stamps benefits next month under newly enforced rules that require some recipients to have a job, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration began in October to enforce a three-month limit on benefits for childless adults in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unless they work at least 20 hours a week, volunteer or participate in a work-training program for a certain number of hours.

Mayhew told The Associated Press on Thursday that benefits will end on Jan. 1 for about 6,500 people who are not meeting those requirements.

The three-month limit is a federal requirement. But Maine – along with many other states – has used a waiver since 2008 which has allowed people who don’t have a job to continue receiving assistance.

LePage decided this year to no longer seek the waiver, saying the goal was not to kick people off the program but to help them become self-sufficient.

Mayhew said that state must create incentives for people to take advantage of job training programs and volunteer opportunities.

"If you are in the food stamp program, you are living in poverty and these are resources and opportunities to engage people in the workforce to learn valuable work skills." She said the administration is trying to help recipients "gain the kind of financial success that is critical to their future."

LePage has made overhauling the state’s welfare programs a top priority since he took office and has clashed frequently with the federal government and advocates for the poor for his efforts.

Amy Gallant, advocacy director at Preble Street, which provides food and housing services for low-income families, said the administration is punishing people who can’t find work in an economy that has not fully recovered from the recession.

There aren’t enough available volunteer opportunities across Maine for recipients to pick up and a lack of transportation is a barrier for many people, Gallant said.

"Mandating volunteering or work training doesn’t make them appear," she said. "It’s an unrealistic expectation. It’s really no an incentive. It’s a punishment."

LePage’s administration said earlier this year that about 12,000 people fit into the category of people that would need to meet the requirements. It affects people between the ages of 18 and 49, but there are exceptions, including people living with dependents and those who are pregnant or are disabled.

Recipients are required to send their pay stub into the state every month so their employment can be verified, Gallant said. Once someone who is unemployed uses up their three months, they aren’t eligible for again for benefits for three years, she said.

A Mayhew spokesman said the department estimates that the change will reduce federal funding for the program by about $650,000 monthly, although the numbers could change if more people lose their benefits or re-qualify.

Gallant said she’s encouraged that the group of people losing their benefits next month isn’t larger, but still believes it’s unacceptable.

"Six-thousand-five-hundred people is far too many for Maine to allow to be hungry when we have a solution in front of us," she said.