Gov. Paul LePage announced Wednesday that Maine will no longer seek a federal waiver that allows some able-bodied adults to receive food stamps without fulfilling work requirements.

“We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work,” LePage said in a statement announcing the change, which would take effect Oct. 1. “We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”

Currently, Maine receives a waiver from the federal government that allows some food stamp recipients to receive benefits without meeting work requirements. Maine has received the waiver for the past six years, largely because of its high employment rate and anemic job market.

In fact, all but four states have received waivers during at least some years since 2008, when the economy sank and unemployment rose nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. It was not clear Wednesday how many of those states receive a waiver this year or how many have reinstated the work requirement.

Without the waiver, able-bodied food stamp recipients in Maine will need to meet a work requirement outlined in federal law, which means they need to either work at least 20 hours a week or volunteer for a community agency.
According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, able-bodied recipients are defined as adults ages 18 to 49 who have no dependents, are not pregnant and are not disabled.

DHHS has identified 12,000 current recipients in Maine who fit that definition. They represent about 5 percent of all food stamp recipients and collectively receive about $15 million per year in benefits, or about 4.4 percent of all food stamp dollars that come to Maine. It’s not known how many of these would fail to satisfy the work requirement.

Those who fit the definition of able-bodied will receive notification of the change in the coming weeks.

The federal government provides funding to cover food stamp benefits, but the program is administered by the states, and the states cover the administrative costs. Each state has some discretion over how the program is administered and who should be deemed eligible.

WHETHER MAINE WOULD STILL QUALIFY IS UNCLEAR

Stormie Whitten, 25, of Portland, has been homeless for a year. She has physical and mental disabilities but hasn’t applied for disability insurance benefits and doesn’t plan to.

“I pretty much rely on my food stamps so that I can feed myself and it keeps getting cut so it’s harder and harder to supply food for the month,” Whitten said Wednesday outside Paul’s grocery store on Congress Street. “But if I lost them, you know, it would be that much harder.”

Whitten says her mental and physical disabilities prevent her from getting a full-time job. She tries to find work as a house cleaner and is currently house-sitting, which allows her to avoid staying in a shelter. Whitten said she won’t be able to support herself if she loses the food stamps.

“I don’t want to use every benefit available to me,” she said. “I don’t stay at the shelter, but food is the one thing that I really need help with – food is extremely expensive and I don’t know what I’m going to do when they turn the program off.”
Dean Taylor, a 30-year-old from Portland, said he thinks people should work, if they can, as “a resourceful way to pay for your food stamps.”

“There are those that are mentally and physically disabled that can’t, but other than that, if you’re able to, then it’s just a matter of the resources,” he said.

Taylor said that he was unemployed in 2012 and received $189 per month in food stamp benefits. Taylor wasn’t aware at the time that the waiver was allowing him to receive the benefits without being required to work or volunteer. When he couldn’t find work in Maine, he moved to Florida, but recently moved back to Maine hoping the economy had picked up enough to find a job. He said he still sees people who rely on assistance.

“Everywhere you go you see lines of people (with food stamps),” Taylor said. “Who knows how many of them are actually looking for employment, but I know some are.”

It’s not clear whether Maine would still be eligible for the waiver for an additional year, given the improvements in the job market and unemployment rate. But the LePage administration does not plan to apply.

Maine’s unemployment rate reached a six-year low of 5.1 percent in June after peaking at 9.7 percent in early 2010, a sign that the economy has improved. But the rate remains high in some rural areas and Maine has recovered only 63 percent of jobs lost during the recession, compared to 106 percent nationally, according to Maine Bureau of Labor statistics from April.

Ann Woloson, a policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, a statewide nonprofit agency that advocates for low-income individuals, said LePage’s decision not to apply for a waiver is “a missed opportunity.”

“We think we would still be eligible in some parts of the state where unemployment rates are higher and jobs are harder to find,” she said. “There is a false expectation that anyone in Maine can find a job with a good wage.”

Woloson said despite the governor’s characterizations, food stamps are still an economic benefit to the state. “This is money that is spent in grocery stores and markets, in places that create the kind of job he wants these people to get,” she said.

Maine has one of the highest rates of food stamp recipients in the country. Last year, roughly 19 percent of Mainers, or about 248,000 individuals, received food stamps. The national rate was 15 percent.

About 17 percent of the state’s population received the benefits in June, although the percentage was as high as 26.2 percent in Washington County.

OTHER CANDIDATES SUPPORT WORK REQUIREMENT

LePage’s announcement Wednesday comes as the governor has ramped up efforts in the past few months to make welfare reform a signature issue during his re-election campaign.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who has disagreed with the governor on other welfare reform measures, said he supports this decision and called it “the right thing to do.”

“I’ve been on the record for ages saying we need to include community service as part of this program or (make) sure they are being trained for new employment,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

Democrat Mike Michaud said he agreed that work requirements for able-bodied food stamp recipients are a good thing but cautioned against using a “one size fits all” approach to public policy.

“I’m a supporter of work requirements but, one thing I’ve learned during my time in public service is that a one size fits all policy doesn’t always work,” Michaud said in a statement. “When you look at the economic circumstances around the state, it makes sense that where there are jobs people who are able should have to work but we need to be careful not to punish those who want to work but live in economically depressed areas where there are no jobs.”

The LePage administration’s plan to not apply for the waiver still must go through the state’s rule-making process, which includes a public hearing.

Woloson said Maine Equal Justice Partners will take part in the rule-making process and try to persuade the governor to reconsider.

Staff Writer Chelsea Diana contributed to this story