More than 6,000 people in Maine have been kicked off the food stamp rolls since October, according to an investigation by local CBS affiliate WGME. Maine is one of a handful of states to make food assistance harder to get, and the cut-offs offer a preview of how safety net opponents around the country are planning to knock about a million Americans off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) next year.
Gov. Paul LePage (R) decided last year to prematurely reinstate tougher eligibility rules requiring food stamps recipients to work. The state agency that maintains SNAP in Maine launched the change in October, and reports that 6,500 of the state’s roughly 215,000 SNAP beneficiaries had been booted from the program as of the end of 2014, WGME’s investigation found.
A Maine official portrayed the decision as “complying with federal requirements” in an interview with the station, but the federal government offered to waive those requirements for Maine and 36 other states back in May. In those 37 states, economic conditions are so bad that the federal government invited state officials to suspend the work requirement that usually applies to able-bodied adults without dependents who want SNAP benefits. When the economy is healthy and jobs are plentiful, a person with no disability and no one to look after must demonstrate that they are working or in job training at least 20 hours a week in order to get food stamps for more than 90 days in any three-year period. If economic conditions are dire, though, federal officials allow state administrators to waive the work rules for SNAP.
Three of Maine’s 16 counties, home to about 100,000 of its 1.3 million residents, are designated “labor surplus areas” by federal labor market monitors. That means there is a serious imbalance between the number of people willing to work and the number of jobs available — an imbalance that stripping away food assistance will do nothing to correct.
Just as reinstating the work rules doesn’t create job opportunities out of thin air, waiving the 20-hour weekly work requirement rule does not mean allowing indolent people to get food without lifting a finger. SNAP recipients in waiver states still have to comply with a variety of rules regarding their willingness and ability to work. They must accept any reasonable job offer, they may not quit an existing job without good cause, and they must register with state jobs databases, for example.
Similar decisions by political leaders in Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Delaware have put tens of thousands more people on the chopping block. Two governors who have exited the SNAP waiver program early are facing lawsuits. New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez (R) decided to reconsider her work requirements push in light of a court challenge, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is being accused of violating his poorest citizens’ civil rights by allowing waivers to continue in rural, mostly-white counties but ending them in the urban counties that house most of his state’s minority population.
These disputes offer a preview of a broader pattern of SNAP cutoffs that will hit across most of the country in 2016. While the leaders in this handful of states are declining to take a waiver that could shelter vulnerable residents from hunger, improving economic conditions around the nation will drastically shrink the list of states that are eligible for the waivers next year. As a result, work requirements will be reinstated for a majority of America’s poor.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that a full 1 million Americans will lose their food stamps due to reinstated work rules sometime in fiscal year 2016. “Even SNAP recipients whose state operates few or no employment programs for them and fails to offer them a spot in a work or training program — which is the case in most states — have their benefits cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job,” the left-leaning policy group wrote. Those flaws in the design of SNAP rules mean that the so-called work requirements function more as a strict time limit on benefits than as a mechanism to link people’s willingness to work with their ability to collect anti-poverty benefits.