LEWISTON — The prolonged economic recession is taking its toll on Mainers, evidenced by a sharp enrollment increase in the federal food stamp program.
About 222,261 Mainers are participating in what is officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That means about 17 percent, or 1 out of 6, Mainers are receiving benefits to help put food on the table. In Androscoggin County, about 21 percent of the population receives SNAP benefits; Franklin County, 19 percent; and Oxford County, 22 percent, according to state and federal statistics.
In August 2003, following the last recession and the implementation of a new system that maximized enrollment for eligible individuals, only about 1 in 10 Mainers was receiving SNAP benefits.
Growing enrollment in the program is a national trend and should be no surprise, as the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent.
Though there are more Mainers getting food assistance than ever before, enrollment increases in the rest of New England are outpacing that of the Pine Tree State.
Between August 2008 and August 2009, enrollment in Maine has increased by about 20 percent. But in Vermont, over the same period, enrollment increased by about 40 percent; in New Hampshire, 36.5 percent.
Increases in enrollment are the result of two factors: rising need and improved access to the program, said Barbara Van Burgel, director of the Office of Integrated Access and Support in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Van Burgel said Maine is ranked second in the nation in terms of access, thanks largely to an administrative change made in 2003 to more efficiently enroll people into all of the assistance programs available to them.
It has also kept state costs down for running the program.
"The SNAP benefit is 100 percent federally funded," Van Burgel said. "The cost of administering the program is split evenly between state and federal funds. In 2007, the administrative cost per month, per case nationally, was $59.87, but Maine's was $29.83."
Other New England states had administrative costs at more than $45 per case per month; in New York, costs topped $80.
But the low cost of administrating the SNAP program isn't at the expense of customer service. In fact, Van Burgel said, the USDA sends a "significant" number of states to Maine to observe how the department interacts with people seeking assistance.
"We are seen as a model for that, in terms of treatment of individuals," she said. "It's a very uncomfortable situation for anybody to ask for help, but we really try to make it as comfortable as we can because there are questions that none of us would want to answer."
In many other states, Van Burgel said, those seeking assistance have to go to many organizations to apply for benefits, but Maine tries to "minimize the bureaucracy."
However, the state has been chastised by the federal government in the past for having a higher error rate than the national average. Van Burgel acknowledged that state officials are operating under what is called a "corrective action" to improve the situation, which included hiring 20 additional workers on a part-time basis to help do follow-up work, such as updating information when enrollees move or if their family situation changes.
"We haven't gotten this year's numbers yet, but we're absolutely confident we're below the national average and maybe one of the most improved states," she said.
Benefits are determined by a number of factors, including income, housing costs, energy costs and the number of people living in a household. In Maine, the average individual benefit is about $95 a month, which is lower than the national average of about $102.
Van Burgel said many elderly Mainers are enrolled in the food assistance program. Because they likely also receive other income, such as Social Security, their benefits tend to be lower and bring down the average. Also, she said, about 20 percent of Mainers who get benefits are working, which also lowers the average benefit.
The program doesn't exist to meet all nutritional requirements for people, but rather to supplement their diets.
"For some people, it provides that little extra so they can buy the bag of oranges or they can get milk for their children," Van Burgel said. "Some of our cases may only get $10 a month, and some of our elderly individuals save that up for a year so they can buy a turkey at Thanksgiving or things they wouldn't necessarily have the resources to do."
According to the most recent statistics, about $28.5 million in federal food stamp assistance was spent by Mainers to buy food in one month, Van Burgel said.
"I think anyone would say it would be positive if we had greater employment and an economic environment where people could support that by their own earnings," she said. "But from a nutritional standpoint, it's a tremendous positive that people are getting more resources to get nutrition to their families."
For more information about SNAP enrollment rates, visit http://tiny.cc/vrrdR.
For more information about applying for benefits, visit http://www.maine.gov/dhhs/OIAS/.