Politics & Policy

No More Free Lunch for Unemployed Mainers

The Republican governor will no longer waive a work requirement for able-bodied welfare recipients.

Governor Paul LePage has launched a push to encourage welfare recipients in Maine to find jobs. On Wednesday, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced that childless “able bodied” adults will have to fulfill work requirements in order to receive food stamps, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Starting in October, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients who are between the ages 18 and 49, have no dependents living with them, and are neither pregnant nor disabled will have to work 20 hours per week or do volunteer work. They can also participate in approved job-training programs. Recipients will lose their benefits after three months if they fail to meet the requirements.

“People who are in need deserve a hand up, but we should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout,” the Republican governor said in a statement Wednesday. “We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work. We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”

The work requirement had already been a part of SNAP, but Maine has received a waiver from the federal government for the past six years that has allowed some recipients to receive benefits without working. Maine was granted the waiver because of its high unemployment rate, which reached a peak of 9.7 percent in February 2010. As of last month, unemployment in the Pine Tree State had dropped to 5.5 percent.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all but four states have received waivers during some years since 2008.

The Press Herald reports that Maine has one of the highest per-capita rates of SNAP recipients in the country. Compared to the national average of 15 percent, 19 percent of Maine residents received food stamps last year.

DHHS commissioner Mary Mayhew told Bangor Daily News that almost 15,000 of the 231,000 SNAP recipients in Maine, around 6 percent, are considered by federal rules to be “Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents.” Out of that group, 12,000 do not meet the work requirement. In total, those 12,000 receive around $15 million a year in benefits, which comes to a little more than $100 per month each.

Mayhew explained that departments in Maine have been collaborating on job-training programs for the welfare recipients. The DHHS Office for Family Independence and the Maine Department of Labor will be running a program to provide employment and training for the recipients in five cities.

“This is not punitive,” Mayhew said of the decision to cease waiving the work requirement. “This is, ‘How do we help people avail themselves of valuable resources that will improve their situation and connect them with meaningful jobs?’”

The decision has been met with criticism from some liberals, who say that there are not enough jobs available to reinstate the work requirement. Garrett Martin, the executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, told the Bangor Daily News that restoring the requirement “is the wrong approach at the wrong time.”

Some have claimed that the governor made the move for political reasons. “This is about politics and about the governor’s interest in detracting [sic] people’s attention away from a really poor job record,” Democrat state representative Peggy Rotundo told CBS.

Mayhew rejected this notion. “It’s always difficult for me that helping people get a job would ever be considered political,” she said. “The governor is committed to helping people out of poverty.”

But many others have expressed their support for the decision.

“Maine’s social safety net should be a temporary stop for Mainers on their way back into the workforce, not a permanent destination,” Jonathan Haines, communications director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, said in a statement. “This policy will encourage work-ready adults to be self-reliant, independent, and in control of their own financial and economic destiny.”

— Molly Wharton is an intern at National Review.

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