Maine has been tagged in a contentious debate over changes to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps.
In its version of the farm bill, the U.S. House includes increasingly tough requirements on the program, while the Senate version does not. Some Mainers who use the program view these kinds of restrictions, which were adopted in Maine some time ago, as problematic.
Critics of the proposed changes argue they will make it more difficult for people in need to access benefits to which they are entitled. Supporters of the proposed requirements say they will reduce programmatic costs, streamline inefficiencies and compel people to find supports outside social programs.
Genevieve Flores of Kittery, a former registered nurse with four children who receives aid through the SNAP program, says food stamps account for a third of her income.
“So imagine taking that off the table, you’re already struggling with the amount of help you get,” she says. “Homelessness is for real.”
Flores says she has experienced homelessness herself, and is a survivor of intimate partner violence, the emotional and mental scars of which limit her ability to work. She says increased work requirements, like those proposed in the House farm bill, don’t acknowledge the struggle some face in trying to seek government assistance.
“I just think it’s really hard for people to have to go ask for help and then justify their need for help by having to disclose really traumatic things,” she says.
Supporters, such as U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District, who championed the measures’ inclusion in the House farm bill, say they inspire people to lift themselves out of poverty.
“If you’re able to work we need to be compassionate and request people, require people, to work to lift themselves out of poverty,” he says.
Maine rolled out work requirements years ago, and they were held up by some as as a model for proposed changes on a national scale.
But Maine Equal Justice Partners’ Kathy Kilrain Del Rio says studies indicate harsher requirements imposed in Maine simply don’t predict success for SNAP recipients on a national scale.
“They don’t result in people getting jobs, they don’t result in people moving out of poverty, they just make more people’s lives difficult, they make people hungry while they’re struggling with all those challenges,” she says.
Del Rio’s organization argues that the increase in the numbers of people getting off assistance is the result of an improving economy, not work requirements or other restrictions.
In addition to the stricter work requirements, which would require adults ages 18-59 to work or participate in job training for at least 20 hours a week, proposed changes in the House version of the farm bill include:
- Elimination of “categorical eligibility”: States may use “categorical eligibility” to raise the gross income limit needed to use the SNAP resource and slowly phase out benefits as households make more money. This can mitigate an abrupt termination of SNAP benefits for people whose income may fluctuate.
- Elimination of “heat and eat”: This connection allows participants in the LiHEAP program, which is intended to facilitate heating assistance for people in need, to automatically qualify for a SNAP utility deduction. This deduction is a factor in calculating SNAP benefits for a household. Changes to this process would likely create additional paperwork for SNAP recipients.
- Educational and training changes: The bill includes changes to an existing educational and job training program for SNAP recipients. Critics of the proposed changes say a new educational program will create excessive bureaucratic changes for states without providing adequate funding.
Both legislative bodies must conform their farm bills before a final vote this fall. The House has recommended the farm bill to committee. A final vote on the bill is scheduled to take place in September.