Thousands of Mainers could lose access to food stamps under a Trump administration plan to tighten eligibility requirements.

The proposed rule change, which would prevent states from automatically enrolling people who are eligible for other welfare benefits, would affect 3 million people nationwide. State officials were still reviewing the proposal Tuesday and could not say how many Maine recipients might be affected.

“This would affect older Mainers, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and families across the state,” said Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program. “Maine people should not be cut off from critical assistance that helps them to feed their families, achieve better health and pursue self-sufficiency.”

Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta-based nonprofit that advocates for low-income Mainers, wasn’t sure how many would lose benefits but predicted it could be in the thousands.

“This is going to make it harder for working families that are close to the poverty line,” she said.

Most states, including Maine, enroll applicants in the food stamp program automatically if they quality for another federal program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This both eliminates the asset test and raises the income threshold. Currently, those who earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines – or about $32,640 for a family of 4 – are eligible and existing rules allow state to raise income eligibility limits so that low-income families with high housing and child care costs can still get food assistance. The option also permits states to adopt less restrictive asset tests, which allows families to keep modest savings and their homes without losing benefits.


The Trump administration rule announced Tuesday would rein in states’ ability to auto-enroll recipients, which means many could lose food stamp benefits if their income is about 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines or if they have assets. It would not apply retroactively, but most benefit recipients have to reapply every three months and document whether or not their income has changed.

The proposal is subject to a 60-day public comment period and the comments must be reviewed before the rule can go into effect.

Merrill said the proposed rule also would make it nearly impossible for Maine to rollback strict limits put in place under the former administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage while exacerbating hunger and food insecurity in Maine.

LePage repeatedly tried to change eligibility or limit the use of food stamps, at one point threatening to stop the state’s administration of the program if the state could not ban the purchase of sugary drinks and candy with SNAP benefits. LePage also implemented work, job training, education or volunteer requirements for some SNAP recipients.

It worked, too.

In June 2012, early in LePage’s first term, there were 134,418 active food stamps cases in Maine covering 255,667 people. This June, that had shrunk to 89,336 cases and 168,382 individuals, but that’s still one out of every eight Mainers. Nationally, nearly 40 million Americans receive food stamp benefits at an average of $121 per month.

The number of people receiving TANF in Maine has dropped significantly as well, largely because of LePage-era policies, but also because the economy has improved. This June, there were 3,835 active TANF cases, down from 10,585 in June of 2012.

If put in place, the new rule would be especially damaging to many families that are just above the poverty line, often struggling with high housing and child care costs, Merrill said.


“Far too many people are going hungry or going with out adequate nutrition in Maine,” Merrill said. “This will cause increased hunger for people when we really want to be going in the other direction.”

Trump, like LePage before him, has taken a hard line on reducing the number of people relying on social service programs. Officials estimate the proposed change could save the federal government $2.5 billion a year.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Tuesday that states “have misused this flexibility” in the federal rules.

“We are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it,” Perdue said, according to a Bloomberg report.

USDA officials told the Washington Post that the proposal was aimed at closing a loophole that was famously exploited by a wealthy Minnesota man, Rob Undersander, who claims he received food stamps for 19 months despite owning significant assets such as property and bank accounts.

But Merrill said state flexibility allowed Maine to consider more than just household income, including housing and child care costs, when determining food stamp eligibility. She also called the proposed rule “an end run around Congress,” which has repeatedly and on a bipartisan manner rejected cuts to the federal food assistance program.

Some Senate Democrats in Washington also have come out against the proposal.

“This proposal is yet another attempt by this administration to circumvent Congress and make harmful changes to nutrition assistance that have been repeatedly rejected on a bipartisan basis,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story