Maine’s General Assistance program helps people when they have nowhere else to go – no other options for finding food, shelter or medicine. It is the safety net’s safety net.

And since asylum seekers began arriving in large numbers in 2019, it’s been one of the only ways to keep them afloat while the federal government refuses to let them work.

In both instances, the support represents a small investment in Maine people that can’t help but pay for itself.

Asylum seekers wait inside City Hall in Sanford on May 8 in a hall near the General Assistance offices. The city has said that it can’t handle the number of asylum seekers looking for aid.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

As General Assistance faces strain (even as the economy as a whole grows), the Legislature should take the opportunity to improve the program so that assistance reaches the people it needs to.

General Assistance is a municipally administered program that helps residents pay for essentials such as housing, food, fuel and medical supplies. It is not a cash program; cities and towns pay vendors with vouchers, then are reimbursed by the state for 70% of the costs.

The costs of the program nearly tripled in three years, from $12.7 million statewide in 2019 to $37 million in 2022, largely driven by the arrival to Maine of thousands of immigrants seeking asylum, mostly in Portland but in other communities as well.


At the same time, the state’s affordable housing crunch, and rising prices in general, have put more people in financial crisis, forcing them to rely more on General Assistance to avoid homelessness, cold and hunger.

The problems are felt most acutely in service centers – larger communities that act as regional hubs for industry, services, commerce and culture.

Portland accounts for most of it. The city’s size and level of services mean it attracts a lot of vulnerable folks from other communities, in addition to asylum seekers.

But communities all over the state use General Assistance to help residents in crisis. Carl Sheline, the mayor of Lewiston and representative of the Maine Mayors Coalition, recently told a legislative committee that things are only going to get harder for the coalition’s communities, which include Auburn, Augusta, Biddeford, Portland, Rockland, Saco, Sanford, South Portland and Westbrook as well.

“We expect to see even more people turn to the General Assistance program and as well to our own cities, where more services are available,” Sheline told the Health and Human Services Committee.

Without more state help, these communities will be forced to raise property taxes on residents already stressed by rising costs, or cut back on services that are both necessary and already limited.


The Legislature has in front of it a variety of ideas for dealing with the situation – some good, some bad.

First, the bad. A series of bills from Sen. Eric Brakey, an Auburn Republican, aim to reduce General Assistance costs by making fewer people eligible through time limits and residency and work requirements.

None of the bills have a chance at passing in the Democrat-led Legislature, and that’s a good thing. Brakey’s proposals would only leave more Mainers without the resources to get by. They would save what is a relatively small amount of money, and ultimately cost the state more as it felt the repercussions of a broken safety net.

Instead, the state should recognize the important role that service centers play in Maine’s social safety net, and make sure they, and all other communities, have the ability to help people.

As suggested in legislation now before lawmakers, Maine should increase the reimbursement rate for General Assistance to 90%, where it was prior to 2015. That idea is supported not only by Democrats in southern Maine but also by Republican Sen. Marianne Moore of Calais.

The state should also earmark additional money to help communities pay for the cost of administering the program, so that the extra burden is not shouldered by property taxes, and so that they can make sure there aren’t other barriers to residents using the program.

Lengthening eligibility from one month to six, or even a year, would also reduce administrative costs, while also lowering the chance someone will lose benefits over a technicality.

The strain on General Assistance shows why we need a formal statewide program for coordinating services for the influx of asylum seekers. It shows we desperately need more affordable housing.

Most of all, it shows that, when all else fails, Maine residents in crisis need a strong General Assistance program to rely on.

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