The number of Mainers applying for two key public assistance programs doubled as the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the Maine economy in April, but has declined slightly in the past two weeks.

Weekly applications for food stamps – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – peaked at 1,733 in the week ending April 17, according to data provided by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. By the week ending May 1, the number of new applications had declined to 1,023.

New applications for food stamps were about 850 weekly in early March, before the pandemic caused state and local leaders to close schools, businesses, restaurants, state parks and much of society. Maine started gradually opening up the economy on May 1, but is still prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people, and wider reopenings are not slated to begin until June 1.

About 175,000 Mainers are now enrolled in the SNAP program.

Chris Hastedt, senior policy adviser for Maine Equal Justice, an Augusta group that advocates for low-income people, said the numbers mirror unemployment claims, which spiked the first week of April. More than 108,000 Mainers have filed unemployment since the pandemic began.

“That’s when we had a big wave of layoffs,” Hastedt said. “New layoffs have not been as steep.”

Hastedt said another reason applications for food stamps have declined is that about two weeks ago, the $600 federal boost for unemployment insurance kicked in, making many people ineligible for food stamps. The average monthly benefit for SNAP is about $105.

Congress expanded unemployment benefits to self-employed people and individuals with irregular income, which may also help keep SNAP enrollment from growing as much as it otherwise would. Hastedt said there also tends to be a lag – some people wait until their situation becomes more dire before applying for public assistance programs even if they are eligible earlier.

Applications for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – TANF – followed a similar pattern to food stamps, with TANF applications peaking at 262 for the week ending April 10 and declining to 156 for the week ending May 1. Applications averaged about 150 per week before the pandemic.

In all, about 10,000 Mainers receive TANF.

The public assistance programs are still far from the peak of the last recession. In 2010, deep into the recession, nearly one in 10 Mainers received food stamps – about 240,000 – and about 25,000 received TANF benefits. TANF recipients receive an average of $575 per month.

Hastedt said unemployment provides a stronger financial lifeline for people, so having a more robust unemployment program now compared to the last recession will help people weather the crisis. But she said food stamps and TANF play a critical role.

“It’s the difference between putting food on the table and not having enough to pay the rent,” Hastedt said.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, is lobbying congressional leaders to make it easier for SNAP recipients to buy food at farmers’ markets, local farms and through Community-Supported Agriculture programs.

Pingree noted Wednesday that Maine is one of 20 states that has been approved for participation in the Pandemic EBT plan, which opens up school meal reimbursement benefits to both SNAP and non-SNAP families. The program was established through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, one of Congress’ initial legislative efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The P-EBT plan will allow families who wouldn’t otherwise receive SNAP benefits to receive a P-EBT card that will reimburse them for the cost of school meals that are not provided during the coronavirus pandemic. Families with at least one child under 18 who normally has access to free or reduced-price meals at school will be eligible for P-EBT.

The program will provide an extra boost in buying groceries for the families of the more than 82,000 children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch at schools in Maine. Families will receive $5.70 per meal per child. Unused benefits will roll over month-to-month but must be used within 1 year.

“I’m grateful for this move, which is another critical component of our plan to keep Maine’s children healthy,” said Pingree, a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. She joined with the other members of Maine’s congressional delegation in March to urge the federal government to use more flexibility in providing offsite meals to Maine students, regardless of income qualifications.

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