AUGUSTA, Maine - A little more than six months ago, Gov. Paul LePage carried out one step in his campaign of welfare reform, directing Health and Human Services officials to abandon Maine's seven-year-old waiver policy that had allowed healthy, but poor, childless adults to receive federal food stamp benefits without first meeting a work requirement.
That led to the removal of 9,000 people from the program. Democrats say the decision is the latest offensive in the administration's war on the poor, and are backing a proposal to undo part of the change.
For Republicans such as Rep. Richard Pickett of Dixfield the voters have clearly spoken. "The people in my district overwhelmingly said: 'We need welfare reform,' " Pickett said. "This is one part if it here, as I see it."
But Democrats say that the administration's requirement that able-bodied adults work at least 20 hours a week, volunteer or participate in a work-training program to receive food stamp benefits ignores the realities of the job market in rural Maine. LD 1052 is a bill that would allow potential food stamp recipients who are locked out under current policies to qualify if they live in areas of Maine with high unemployment.
Rep. Scott Hamman, a South Portland Democrat and the bill's sponsor, says unemployment in many of Maine's rural counties is nearly double that of Cumberland and York counties. And Hamman says the jobs that once sustained rural Mainers are disappearing from the landscape.
"The mill closes down, they lose their jobs, their property value plummets," Hamman said, "and when these long-time taxpayers turn to to the social safety net for food assistance, it's not there for them. We are failing rural Mainers if we turn our back on them in their time of need. Would I prefer to seek a statewide waiver, as we have since 2008? Yes, absolutely. The worst thing you can do to handicap a person trying to get back on their feet is to cut off a life-line to a fundamental human need like food."
In places such as Aroostook, Washington, and Piscataquis counties, Hamman and other supporters say there are real challenges in finding a job, which makes the 20-hour-a-week threshold nearly impossible to reach. Lack of transportation also poses problems for those trying to volunteer or enter training programs. And Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook Democrat, says those placements are just as scarce as jobs.
"Currently there are 14 volunteer opportunities in all of Washington County and four opportunities in Aroostook County - 18 opportunities between those two counties to support a portion of the 9,000 people who lost their benefits because the department refused to accept this waiver," Gattine said.
"In life there's always more to learn, people worse off than ourselves who could use some volunteer help - there are always small jobs to be done," said Republican Rep. Karen Vachon.
Vachon is from Scarborough, which in March saw an unemployment rate of under 4 percent, as compared to the nearly 10 percent rate in Washington County. Still, Vachon says she opposes lifting the work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults because it paints a false picture of rural Maine.
"This bill holds people back and brings people down," Vachon said. "It suggests that there are no real jobs in rural Maine. We can't go to school and learn a new trade. We can't even volunteer. My goodness, you would think that rural Maine is a wasteland."
The Democratically-led Maine House divided closely along party lines to pass the bill, 79-65. It now moves to the Republican-controlled Senate where it faces an uphill battle.