Applications for public assistance in Maine have nearly doubled since the coronavirus pandemic caused businesses and schools to shut down in mid-March, with safety net programs such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families helping to tide people over.

The jump comes as Maine has seen a massive wave of unemployment claims, with more than 45,000 Mainers applying during the last two weeks of March, according to state data released last week.

Maine had 519 COVID-19 cases, with 12 deaths through Tuesday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Food stamp applications nearly doubled in the weeks after schools, public-facing businesses and dine-in restaurants and bars closed beginning on March 16.

Requests for food stamps – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – jumped from about 850 per week in early March to 1,451 for the week ending April 3. There were 1,289 applications for food stamp applications in the week ending March 27, and 1,202 the week before that, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

TANF, which provides temporary cash assistance for families, has also seen applications nearly double, from about 150 per week before the pandemic to 294 for the week ending April 3.

Maine now has 166,119 people receiving food stamps and 9,390 people getting TANF, both still far lower than during the Great Recession. In 2010, nearly one in 10 Mainers received food stamps – about 240,000 – and about 25,000 received TANF benefits.

The average monetary value of the programs is about $575  per month for TANF recipients, and $105 per month for food stamps, according to an analysis by Maine Equal Justice, an Augusta-based advocacy group.

Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice, said SNAP is a vital social service program because many people qualify and enrollment can be fairly quick.

“What we found from the last recession is that SNAP is a good mechanism to get relief to a lot of people quickly,” Hastedt said.

The Mills administration last week made changes to SNAP and TANF to bolster the programs during the pandemic. Food stamp recipients will, starting this month, receive maximum benefits permitted for their household size, and the application process has been streamlined to get benefits to recipients quicker. The cost of the program, using federal funds, will increase from $17.5 million monthly to $29 million per month, according to a news release.

Mainers receiving SNAP benefits that were due to expire will have them extended through the civil emergency, which as of now is set to end April 30.

Those receiving TANF will see food benefits under the program increase from $50 per month to $100, and they can also have their benefits extended during the civil emergency. Applications for TANF have also been streamlined.

“In the face of COVID-19, it’s critical now more than ever that Maine people can protect their families’ health and well-being without risking their financial stability,” Maine DHHS commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a news release.

Hastedt said the federal government needs to do more to improve TANF benefits during the pandemic, similar to the boost in benefits during the recession a decade ago.

“TANF is not doing the work it needs to do to protect kids and families who are in poverty,” Hastedt said.

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