March 4, 2010

Mainers' food stamp use second in nation

ANN S

— By . KIM

Staff Writer

Maine had the nation's second-highest percentage of households receiving food stamp benefits during 2008, according to data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Across the state, 13.8 percent of households received benefits, according to the 2008 American Community Survey. Nationally, the figure was 8.6 percent.

Both rates were up from 2007, when the percentage was 12.3 percent in Maine and 7.7 nationally. The Census Bureau, however, recommends caution in comparing figures from year to year because of changes in the wording of the survey question.

In 2008, the rate ranged from the high of 16.2 percent in Louisiana to the low of 4.2 percent in Wyoming.

National figures show a general relationship between food stamp use and income levels, but Maine's high ranking doesn't tell the whole story. In fact, Maine ranks 27th for individuals below the poverty level, according to the survey.

Eligibility for food stamps -- officially called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program -- is tied to income, but the method Maine uses to administer the federal program may play a larger role in its high rate.

''Overall in Maine, we have done a very good job of doing outreach,'' said Ana Hicks, senior policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy and legal aid organization. ''We should be proud of that. These are all federal dollars that are going into our grocery stores to help meet people's needs and also boost the economy.''

A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service shows that the rate of participation by eligible individuals varies widely by state.

Maine had the second-highest participation rate, with an estimated 96 percent of eligible individuals using the benefit in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available. The national rate was 67 percent, with states ranging from 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri.

In Maine, the Office of Integrated Access and Support administers programs including food stamp benefits, MaineCare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. When someone goes to one of the regional offices, the staff will check eligibility for 22 support programs, said John Martins, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

''You could be coming in for health insurance. You could be coming in for a variety of reasons,'' Martins said. ''Our process is so well integrated with all of the programs, once they apply, they're screened for everything.''

The American Community Survey is a survey of 3 million households. It is separate from the census count done every 10 years.

It shows that an estimated 74,863 Maine households received food stamp benefits in 2008. Slightly over 13 percent of those households were below the poverty level.

Generally, a household is eligible if its income is not higher than 130 percent of the poverty level. The criteria are more flexible for households with members who are elderly, disabled or minors.

Nearly 35 percent of Maine households receiving food stamp benefits -- users have cards rather than actual stamps these days -- had at least one resident 60 or older; almost 30 percent had a disabled member, and 29 percent had a child younger than 18.

In the year that starts Oct. 1, the maximum food stamp allotment for a single person will be $200 a month. For two people, it will be $367, and for four, it will be $668. Those amounts can be reduced by a range of factors, including income and assets.

Hicks said the survey figures show the real need in Maine, including among working families. She said the poverty level is not a good measure of what a family needs to survive because its formula is based on household budget assumptions from the 1960s.

According to the survey, 57 percent of the Maine households getting food stamps had two or more members working in the past year; 28.4 percent had one member working, and 14.6 percent had no one working.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

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