Regardless of their location on the political spectrum, most people would agree that the best anti-poverty program is a job. So it seems like a common-sense move for Gov. LePage to declare, as he did this week, that he intends to reinstate work requirements for some able-bodied Maine adults who are applying for food stamps.
But the announcement didn’t acknowledge some of the factors that make it hard for Mainers to feed themselves without government assistance. In some parts of Maine where demand for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits is the highest, jobs that pay a livable wage are scarce. And the state has cut back the same training initiative that’s been touted as a conduit to success. Unless the state addresses these practical realities, bringing back the work mandate will be a meaningless gesture that punishes people who are already struggling.
Starting Oct. 1, an estimated 12,000 Maine adults who have no children and who aren’t pregnant or disabled will need to seek and get jobs in order to qualify for food stamps – a mandate that overlooks the slow pace of the recovery in much of Maine.
Though the state’s unemployment rate reached a six-year low of 5.5 percent in June, Maine has recovered only 63 percent of the jobs lost in the recession, compared to 106 percent nationally. What’s more, rural Maine hasn’t benefited from the resurgence: The Portland metro area (from Kennebunk to Freeport) is responsible for 80 percent of jobs added in the state since the summer of 2009.
Wednesday’s statement by Gov. LePage presented the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program as a way for people who can’t find jobs to fulfill the SNAP work requirement. But it’s unclear whether the state program – which helps pay for tuition, transportation and other job-training expenses – can accommodate the increased demand.
After all, in the program’s first five years, it had the capacity to accept just 17 percent of qualified applicants – and of those who left the program between 2008 and 2012, only 39 percent secured a credential. According to the state Labor Department, moreover, legislators had to cut $2.5 million from the program this year because of burgeoning MaineCare costs.
If LePage administration officials want Mainers to get jobs that pay enough for them to get off food stamps, they should make a good-faith effort to remove the roadblocks standing in the way of livable-wage employment. To do otherwise is to set up already-needy people for certain failure.