For many people, General Assistance is a last resort.
It's where they turn when they aren't getting assistance from other programs, such as TANF or SSI. Or when there's an emergency, such as a broken heater in the middle of January. Or when they have so little money that they need vouchers to help pay for food, medicine, rent or other necessities.
In the past 10 years, those GA requests — and spending on them — have skyrocketed.
GA is given in the form of a voucher for food, heat, rent or other necessities to people who apply in their towns or cities. If they aren't disabled or caring for a family member, GA recipients must work off the benefit. They can also pay it back. If they ask for GA more than once, they must prove they spent their money on necessities.
GA is shared between municipalities and the state. Towns and cities administer the program — taking applications, deciding how much money an applicant will get, overseeing the recipient's work or pay-back requirement. The state helps pay, reimbursing municipalities at least 50 percent for the money they hand out. Some towns, once they meet a threshold, get 90 percent reimbursed.
The state spent $4.9 million on GA in fiscal year 2003. Spending increased every year until it peaked at $13.2 million in 2012. The state spent $12.2 in fiscal year 2013.
Local cities saw a similar trend.
In 2001, Auburn spent just under $32,000. Spending peaked this past fiscal year at just over $154,000.
In 2001, Lewiston spent just over $169,000 on GA. Spending peaked in fiscal year 2011 at $935,000. This past fiscal year it spent $812,000.
In a recent mayoral debate, Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald blamed out-of-staters for part of the increase. He echoed that accusation in an interview a few days later.
"When I come in here (to City Hall), I've seen out-of-state plates pull in," Macdonald said. "They get out of the car and they go right to the second floor. I see them when I'm coming in the building. I see them going upstairs."
Sue Charron, director of social services for Lewiston, agreed that Lewiston is seeing an uptick in GA requests from people who have moved to Maine in the past 30 days. The city had 20 GA cases from out-of-staters last year; it's had nine such cases in the past three months, a number that, if it proves to be a trend, puts the city on track for 36 cases for the year.
But that's still a fraction of the 600-plus families the city handles through GA each year.
Lewiston could be seeing more GA requests from people who moved to Maine more than a month ago, but only those in Maine 30 days or fewer are officially considered out-of-staters.
The city is seeing a greater increase in asylum-seekers — people from other countries who ask for asylum in the U.S. and either aren't allowed to work or are struggling to find work as they go through the legal process of getting asylum. They aren't eligible for many other government assistance programs.
In the past fiscal year, about 13 percent of Lewiston's GA spending went to asylum-seekers.
What accounts for the rest of the increase? And what about the cities that don't have asylum-seekers?
Experts say the poor economy can be blamed for some of it. Some of the biggest increases in GA spending by Lewiston, Auburn and the state came between fiscal years 2009 and 2011, prime time for the recession.
Some also say new restrictions in other welfare programs have caused people to turn to GA. When people can't get health care through MaineCare, for example, they ask GA to help pay for prescriptions.
This past year, Auburn gave $32,200 — nearly 21 percent of its total GA spending — to former TANF families. It expects that figure to grow this year.
In an effort to stem the rising tide of GA, lawmakers recently made changes that tightened eligibility. Fleeing felons, for example, can no longer get GA. People who lost their unemployment benefits because they committed fraud now must count those lost benefits as income, a potential blow to receiving GA. And when one family member is disqualified from receiving benefits, the remaining family members can continue to get GA, but only on a pro-rated basis.
Some would like more changes. There have been discussions about abandoning the way GA is funded now — with the state reimbursing cities — in favor of municipal block grants. That would allow the state to maintain a fixed GA budget and would allow towns and cities more freedom with their GA money, but cities with a lot of GA requests could blow through their state funds and have to pay remaining assistance on their own.
Lewiston's Macdonald would like to see another kind of change: a six-month waiting period for people who move to Maine and ask for GA, unless they have a "legitimate reason" for moving here. He hopes to submit legislation for the change next year.
"There are people coming in here. I don't care what the numbers are," he said. "The fact that they're coming in here and squatting down here and wanting us to take care of them, you know what? No. No, it's time for them to take care of themselves."