AUBURN — The state’s largest hunger relief organization says a growing number of Mainers struggle to get enough to eat, and the problem is likely to worsen if lawmakers in Washington impose a work requirement for many who receive food assistance from the government.
The proposal, pushed by two-term U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine, would force many more able-bodied adults to work at least 20 hours a week to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Because of the numbers involved, the proposal is “just scary to us,” said Kristen Miale, president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn.
Food bank officials said Maine already has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation — only Alabama and Louisiana have a higher percentage of people in dire straits — and if Poliquin’s proposal wins final passage, hunger will become even more common in the Pine Tree State.
Poliquin, a 2nd District Republican who is seeking re-election, said he pushed for the farm bill provision to help “individuals stuck in government dependency to get the opportunities to be successful and become independent and self-sufficient.”
The House version of the farm bill included Poliquin’s proposed changes to the SNAP program, among them raising the age for when people must work to 59 from 49, and dropping the exemption for people who have no children under age 6. But the Senate refused to include the revisions in the farm measure it adopted.
A reconciliation committee is slated to meet soon to forge a compromise bill that might win approval in both houses of Congress. It is unclear whether Poliquin’s suggestions will survive the process.
Clara McConnell, public affairs director for Good Shepherd, said 97 percent of those receiving the food bank’s help in Maine are already either working or fall into a category that would not require them to get a job because they are disabled or have young children. Many are elderly, she added.
During a tour of the food bank Wednesday, Poliquin said the training he envisions and the push toward employment included in the measure would help put people on the path to a better life.
But his Democratic opponent, Jared Golden of Lewiston, who toured the facility last week, said Poliquin’s agenda is “complete bull.”
He dismissed his opponent’s stance on the issue as “just politics,” and asked if it is worth causing more hardship to claim “some meaningless political victory.”
Instead of slashing aid to people who are already struggling, Golden said, government leaders ought to address the problem of hunger, which he said is clearly tied both to overall health and the opportunity to find and keep a good job.
Poliquin said the work requirements he seeks ultimately aim “for the exact same thing” everyone wants: employment for everyone who can work in jobs worth doing.
Poliquin told Miale and McConnell he would help them however he could, but he shrugged off McConnell’s warning that the work provision changes in the House measure would add “a whole slew of additional people” to the rolls of food-deprived people in Maine.
“The problem of hunger in Maine is worse than it’s ever been,” Miale said, and it’s “getting worse” each year.
She said her nonprofit provides about 25 million meals per year to 175,000 Mainers, distributed through local food pantries that fill up at its Auburn and Hampden facilities. To wipe out hunger by 2025 — Good Shepherd’s goal — Miale said that between 36 and 40 million meals would have to be handed out.
“It’s a big number,” Miale said, “but it’s not impossible.”
Good Shepherd is also stepping up efforts to integrate its assistance with partners in health care and education, a recognition that when people are in trouble, they often reach out to food providers first, she said.
The nonprofit is also doing much more than it did in years past to get healthy food to people who need it.
About a third of the people served by Good Shepherd make too much money to qualify for SNAP benefits. Some who could qualify do not bother, especially seniors for whom it might only be worth $16 a month once Social Security is taken into account.
Miale said the average household that qualifies gets about $124 a month for food, which falls well short of what many need to get by. She said nobody is avoiding work in order to collect such a small amount.
She said the House farm bill’s provisions that Poliquin pressed to include would make it more difficult for some to get food assistance while simultaneously creating “a vast new bureaucracy” to oversee the administration of a work requirement.
States would be required to keep tabs on each recipient and track his or her work record each month, an expense that would be paid through the savings in what is shelled out for food.
Miale said the billions in savings GOP lawmakers see nationwide in the farm bill mostly “come from people losing access” to food assistance they need.
Poliquin said there is “a finite amount of money out there” so it is important that the government give people a push to better themselves.
He said he believes pushing SNAP recipients to work “will give young adults the opportunity to learn the skills they need to be successful.”
Poliquin’s campaign said there “are zero changes for anyone who is a child, elderly, disabled, pregnant or the parent of a child who is too young for public school.”
But advocates see something quite different in the provisions Poliquin convinced colleagues to write into the bill.
McConnell said it would have a strong impact on the children of noncustodial parents who might not qualify any longer for the food they give to children when they come to stay.
She mentioned a former Marine in Lewiston who can no longer have his 10-year-old son visit because he lost his eligibility for benefits after failing to find work quickly enough.
“It’s never as cut and dried as it’s made out to be,” McConnell said.
She said she has never met anyone who did not want to work. Those who did not have jobs, she said, knew they would be better off if they did. They simply could not overcome all the obstacles in their way, McConnell said.
Ensuring they have food, she said, is “going to solve a lot of other challenges” far more easily and efficiently than an edict handed down from Washington to require 20 hours at work or at a government-sanctioned training program.
She said Maine has seen rising hunger, in part, because it imposes work rules on a more-limited pool of recipients than the one included in the House bill. A more-stringent standard will likely hit even harder, McConnell said.
Portland lawyer Tiffany Bond, an independent challenger in the congressional race, said Wednesday that “work requirements for deep poverty programs are ineffective and often inhumane.”
“They sound good but are not,” she said. “The problem with work requirements is they often place a burden on people who literally cannot work to prove they are trying hard enough. Many have undiagnosed disability, massive child care issues, seasonal employment, no work in close proximity, no transportation, etc.
“If anything, expanding these programs would help folks who actually have the possibility to work to successfully transition into the workforce.”
Poliquin said the best answer to the problem of hunger is for the economy to grow.
“A rising economy lifts all boats,” he said, and ensures donors will keep assisting the food bank in its quest to help anyone in dire straits.
Without the assistance of organizations such as Good Shepherd, the congressman said, “I hate to think what would happen.”