In Maine, some of our poorest neighbors have lost a critical tool to help them get enough to eat each day.
In 1996, Congress dictated that able-bodied childless adults must work in order to get food assistance. States are allowed to seek a waiver to suspend this requirement in places where there are limited job opportunities.
Since 2014, Governor LePage has chosen to ignore the waiver provision. Maine limits federal food assistance to just three months unless individuals are working, volunteering, or participating in work training for 20 hours a week.
More than 12,000 Mainers have lost their food assistance in the last two years under this provision. Yet, job growth remains sluggish and inconsistent and, unlike most other states, Maine has not yet recovered all the jobs lost in the recession.
The people impacted by this harsh time limit are some of the poorest in the state including rural residents, veterans, and those who are working part-time or seasonally.
Passing over Maine’s rural counties
Maine imposes the work requirement despite the state’s lackluster job recovery in some counties. Seven years after the end of the recession, we still have fewer jobs than we did before the economic downturn in 2007.[i] Hardest hit are Maine’s rural counties. Thirteen of Maine’s 16 counties have fewer people employed today than in 2007. Many of the people affected by the work requirement live in communities where full-time employment is difficult to come by.
Alternatives to 20-hour-a-week employment are not realistic. Very few programs offer work training for 20 hours a week. Waiting lists, fees, and lack of transportation especially in rural communities also prevent access to existing job training programs. Volunteering takes away from job hunting. And the time an unemployed worker spends interviewing or performing other job-seeking tasks does not count towards the work requirement.
No allowances for seasonal workers
Many of those impacted are already working but unable to find enough hours to meet the 20-hour requirement. For many Mainers working part-time or seasonally remains an economic reality. Some of Maine’s biggest industries are seasonal: agriculture, tourism, and construction, for example. Maine has one of the highest percentages of workers wanting full-time jobs but who are only able to secure part-time work. The three-month time limit is especially detrimental to this population as there are no other benefits available to most unemployed workers without children.
Abandoning Maine’s veterans
The work requirement also hurts veterans who struggle to find jobs following the completion of their military service. Veterans suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, or who unable to afford the necessary legal fees to obtain disabled status, or who just need time to adjust to civilian norms may be out of work for more than three months. And due to the work requirement, these veterans lose their food benefits before they can find a job. More than 12,000 Maine veterans receive SNAP benefits.
Increasing hunger and hardship throughout the state
Meanwhile Mainers are some of the hungriest in the nation. Sixteen percent of Mainers, or over 200,000 people, do not get enough to eat on a regular basis. Maine ranks 12th in the nation and 1st in New England for food insecurity.
Food assistance is the best anti-hunger program we have. There is little evidence that receiving food assistance discourages people from working. Cutting off this basic assistance to keep food on the table for the poorest Mainers will not mean that they will be better able to find employment or more hours of work, it will simply mean increased hunger for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
[i] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey