Maine Gov. Paul LePage says he wants able-bodied food stamp recipients in Maine to work, volunteer or enter a job training program in order to receive benefits. The state has chosen not to seek an extension of a waiver in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, that runs out Oct. 1.
Maine got the waiver from the employment requirement in federal law because of the state’s high unemployment rates during the recession. Many other states that also got the waiver are seeking an extension. But Gov. LePage used his weekly radio address to announce that he will not.
"DHHS will abide by federal law that requires most able-bodied recipients work, provide volunteer services, or be involved in a specialized work training program in order to receive food stamps," LePage says.
The federal law exempts the disabled, those who are pregnant, and those with children from the work requirement. But Ann Woloson, an analyst at Maine Equal Justice Partners, a low-income advocacy group, says the loss of benefits under the change is extreme, given that Maine is still recovering from the recession and jobs are not plentiful.
"Just making people go through the motions for a political sound bite seems ridiculous, especially when it is clear that Maine is still - our unemployment rate is 20 percent above pre-recession rates," she says. "So he is setting up this false expectation."
But Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew says that while the state economy is still recovering, there has been improvement in the job market and more Mainers are working.
"Our unemployment rate has dropped," she says. "So we are looking at expanding a food stamp education and training program to provide more resources through the career centers, particularly to support individuals and identify the training programs that they may need to be successful," she says.
Mayhew says DHHS has been working with the Department of Labor and the Education Department to steer not just food stamp recipients, but those receiving other welfare benefits, to the programs that both agencies offer. But Woloson is not convinced that the training and education programs in place will be enough, as evidenced by a spotty track record.
"They are very limited in nature and very short term," she says. "So while someone may participate in one of these training programs and opportunities, there is very little evidence out there that shows that everyone that participates in them finds a good-paying job."
But Comissioner Mayhew says while the training programs may need to be expanded and better focused on jobs that are truly in demand, they have been successful.
"We have wonderful stories and testimonials of individuals, recently, who have come through our doors who have benefited from the vocational assessment, who have benefited from the job coaching and who have moved on to employment," she says.
DHHS estimates that 12,000 individuals may lose benefits, but advocates says it's more like 25,000 households. They also disagree on economic impact. The department is estimating $15 million in overall reductions a year, while advocates say it is closer to $70 million.
And there are others, including veterans and students, who may be affected by the change. But the concerns being raised really won’t be answered until DHHS adopts rules for implementation. Commissioner Mayhew says those rules are being developed, and that a public hearing will be scheduled before they're adopted.