U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack criticized Gov. Paul LePage’s administration this week, saying it has disqualified childless, unemployed adults from food stamp benefits without doing enough to help them find jobs or learn skills.

More than 12,000 jobless, childless Mainers were removed from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, from November 2014 to November 2015 after the LePage administration chose to enforce federal work requirements that had been waived since the recession.

“I think he’s looking for a shortcut, he’s looking for a way of making it easy on the state,” Vilsack said in an interview Wednesday with The Huffington Post. “I’m happy when we reduce the rolls the right way: I’m happy when someone gets a job.”

Maine and Kansas were the only two states to end the work-requirement before it expired in 2016.

Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew criticized Vilsack’s comments, calling the federal government “out of touch.”

“By reinstating the work requirement for these individuals in the food stamp program, we have actually increased the work of Maine DHHS, not decreased it or simplified it,” she said in an email Thursday. “The federal waiver that allows states to ignore employment, training or volunteer requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents has actually been the easy way out, and has been completely counterproductive to improving the lives of people living in poverty.”


The work requirement, which went back into effect in January, will remove about 1 million Americans in 21 states from the SNAP program. Nationally, about 46 million people receive food stamps annually, with states paying administration costs of the federal benefit.

Vilsack made the comments Wednesday as he announced a pilot program in 10 states – not including Maine – to provide better job training to help people get off food assistance.

LePage administration officials have defended renewing the work requirements early – it is one of several tweaks state officials have made in recent years that make it tougher to receive benefits.

“Requiring able-bodied people to work to receive their benefits just makes common sense and sends the message to Maine’s hard-working taxpayers that their money is truly being used as a hand up, not a handout,” Peter Steele, a spokesman for the governor, told the Associated Press in January.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has also placed new requirements on SNAP recipients, including an asset test for childless adults that makes them ineligible if they have more than $5,000 in property or cash, including snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, jet-skis, campers, ATVs or other valuables.

The state also has pushed food stamp recipients to add their driver’s license photo to electronic benefit cards, which the LePage administration says promotes security and deters fraud and waste.

Federal officials put Maine’s food stamp administrators on notice after finding the state was slowest in the nation at processing applications for benefits. Mayhew blamed the lengthy wait times on the state’s transition to a new digital system for processing applications, and said that a month after the USDA cited the state, timely benefits decisions were made in 86 percent of cases.

“I will not sacrifice the program’s integrity for application expediency,” Mayhew said in a December 2015 statement. “I am confident in the steps we have taken to improve this program and help those who are eligible and in need.”

Comments are no longer available on this story