LEWISTON — Gov. Paul LePage stopped by Hope Haven Gospel Mission on Monday to speak with reporters about his administration’s decision to require some of the state’s food stamp recipients to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week.

On Monday, LePage said the proposal to require “able-bodied” adults receiving federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to work, volunteer or participate in a job-training program impacts 11,586 of the 231,000 people receiving food stamps in Maine.

The change targets those 18 to 49 who have no dependents living with them and who are not pregnant or disabled and mirrors the federal requirements for the program.

LePage said some of the details of the program change had been misconstrued in the media but he also noted that the state’s declining unemployment rate, currently at about 5.5  percent, meant Maine was no longer eligible for a waiver from the federal government allowing recipients to skip the work, volunteer or job-training requirements.

About 32 states, including Maine, previously had waivers allowing SNAP recipients to skip the work requirements in federal law.

LePage first announced the change last week and received criticism from some advocates for the poor who said good-paying jobs are not as readily available in many parts of Maine.

Maine’s growing employment opportunities and declining unemployment rate means those who can work should, LePage said, noting about 7,000 available jobs currently unfilled in the Maine Department of Labor’s job bank.

“There’s plenty of work to go around,” LePage said. “What the program is going to call for is you have to work, make an effort to get some skills, some training either through an educational institution, an internship or things of that nature or you can volunteer.”

LePage said that volunteer requirement could be meant at places like Hope Haven or local soup kitchens or other nonprofits that provide services and help to the homeless, poor or underemployed.

As a younger man and boy, LePage spent time in the building that now houses Hope Haven, the city’s primary homeless shelter on Lincoln Street. LePage worked as a dishwasher at what was then Theriault’s Cafe from the time he was 11 until he went to college, he said during the stop downtown.

LePage’s story of growing up homeless on the streets of Lewiston is well known in Maine and he mentioned it again Monday as he fielded a range of questions from reporters.

He said coming into the Hope Haven Gospel Mission building brought back memories and he detailed the floor plan of the building when it was a cafe, noting the location of the kitchen, cash register, coffee stations and so forth. 

The governor also said Monday that he would be tasking employees at Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services to work closely with helping those receiving food stamps to find the work, volunteer or training opportunities they need to remain eligible for the benefits.

LePage said the change wasn’t meant to cut anybody off from food stamps who needs them to survive, but it is meant to improve skill sets and employment rates for those who can work.

“You are never going to solve poverty if you don’t get them out into the workforce and learning skills,” LePage said. “It’s incomprehensible for me to understand why we would not want to train our folks and make sure they have the work set and the skill set, the ability and the attitude to go out and get a job and feel a lot better about themselves. They will be contributors instead of takers and that’s what we need, we need people wanting to help society.”

LePage’s ideas sound similar to those passed into law in a bill authored by Maine’s Democratic Speaker of the House, Mark Eves of North Berwick.  

Eve’s “Ticket-to-Work” bill passed into law without LePage’s signature in 2013. It focused on individual assessments for those receiving state and federal TANF benefits in an attempt to develop work skills or close educational gaps to help move people from welfare to work. The new law did not apply to SNAP recipients.

The law also requires DHHS to help those with serious and long-term disabilities move from programs meant to be temporary such as SNAP and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to federal Social Security disability programs meant for those who are truly unable to work.

LePage on Monday seemed to agree with his Democratic rivals on the issue.

“The whole key is we will never get rid of poverty, we will never get rid of welfare if we don’t work to get people into a good job,” LePage said. “And the biggest and quickest way to get out of poverty is with a good job.”

Eves said Monday that LePage was trying to score political points around the hot-button issue of welfare reform while ignoring the state’s overall economic condition.

“Right now, Maine’s job growth is among the worst in the country and we need our leaders to focus on creating jobs, not scoring political points,” Eves said.

“Gov. LePage has used the language of welfare reform to veil his effort to slash and burn the safety net. What we truly need is a focus on job growth and a fair and strong economy,”  Eves said.

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