Poll: Should Maine deny food stamps to applicants with more than $5,000 in assets?

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has announced new rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

LePage’s administration said any person applying for SNAP benefits would be ineligible if they had more than $5,000 in personal assets.

“Hardworking Mainers should not come home to see snowmobiles, four-wheelers or jet skis in the yards of those who are getting welfare,” LePage said in a prepared statement issued by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The department oversees the SNAP program funded with state and federal dollars.

Advocates for the poor said Wednesday that the proposal isn’t real welfare reform but more of the same from the Republican governor’s administration.

“Is this the first issue we would look at?” Christine Hastedt asked. “A sort of speculation that some people have some things that some people may think they shouldn’t have. Implying that people aren’t worthy because they may have a broken-down 20-year-old snowmobile in their front yard?”

Hastedt, the public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrants and the poor in Maine, said she’s concerned the proposed change wouldn’t have the intended effect.

She said the speculative nature of the change and its narrow focus on a small subset of the 200,000 Maine people who receive SNAP benefits did not seem like meaningful reform to her and others who advocate for the poor.

The focus, Hastedt said, should be on creating jobs and helping the poor gain the work skills and education they need to become self-sufficient. “I don’t see any motion on that front, on that agenda,” Hastedt said.

The new “asset test” in Maine is allowed under federal law, according to the release issued Wednesday morning. In recent years, Maine has waived the federal requirement. The change will affect about 8,600 people who do not have children, according to the department.

The department will hold a public hearing on the rule change Oct. 6 and anticipates implementing it in the weeks following that hearing.

For the purposes of the rule, assets do not include equity in a home or a household’s primary vehicle, the release said.

Assets that will be counted include bank accounts, snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, jet skis, all-terrain vehicles, recreational vehicles, campers and other valuable assets.

“We are continually evaluating ways to prioritize funding for those who need it most while transforming the welfare system from a culture of entitlement to a culture of self-reliance,” DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in the prepared statement. “When people see that some are using welfare as a first line of defense to keep their boats and motorcycles, rather than using welfare as a safety net, it hurts the public perception of the program.”

DHHS has access to a database of statewide vehicle registrations which would be used to enforce the asset test, according to DHHS spokesman David Sorensen. Implementing the new rule does not require legislative approval.

In 2014, the LePage administration implemented another federal rule that had previously been waived in Maine, requiring childless adults ages 18 to 49 to meet mandatory work, job training or volunteer requirements for the program.

Hastedt said the recent changes by LePage made little sense, especially as a recent study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the SNAP program, shows Maine has a growing level of food insecurity.

Hastedt said Maine, along with 37 other states, decided to waive the asset tests for SNAP benefits because those tests are often inaccurate and lead to the loss of benefits for some, while allowing some to receive benefits when they may not be eligible for them.

“The reason (Maine) made the decision to eliminate the asset test is because there are very few families that have significant assets that get this benefit and it’s extremely administratively burdensome and error-prone to have these tests in the law,” Hastedt said.

She said the proposed rule change, which focuses on childless adults, would likely have the biggest impact on the disabled and the elderly, and the rule doesn’t consider the many individuals who accept SNAP benefits for a short period to get through a financial crisis.

“Somebody works at a paper mill and they are laid off for three months and they need help during that period,” Hastedt said. “Are they supposed to sell everything they’ve worked for over the years for a temporary period of unemployment?”

A 2008 study by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services shows that 68 percent of childless adults who receive SNAP benefits in the U.S. are on the program for less than 24 months, and 55 percent receive benefits for less than a year. Thirty percent of those using the program receive benefits for less than four months.

Republican and Democratic State House leaders on Wednesday issued statements on LePage’s latest proposal.

“Obviously, Maine must comply with federal law on issues of asset testing for welfare benefits,” House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said in a prepared statement. “Our limited state tax dollars must be used for those most in need and not those who would abuse our system of supporting those who should be receiving this type of assistance. I applaud the actions of the department and continued Republican leadership on this issue.”

State Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he was heartened by the proposed change and believed most Mainers would be.

“Mainers are eager to help out those who have fallen on hard times and need a hand up,” Thibodeau said. “But they are tired of abuse of the system. This is a common-sense measure that will help people get back on their feet by ensuring that those who receive taxpayer-funded assistance help themselves before turning to the government.”

But Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the move by LePage was yet another snip at the state’s “social safety net.”

“For many Mainers who are down on their luck, SNAP is the first line of defense against the downward spiral of poverty,” Alfond said in a prepared statement. “Who are we to judge our most needy neighbors before extending a helping hand? We shouldn’t be building needless barriers between them and the help they need.”

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he agreed that those with large cash assets shouldn’t receive welfare benefits from the state, but what LePage was proposing was different. He said adding a layer of bureaucracy for means testing wasn’t going to save taxpayers any money.

“Common sense says that someone with a ton of cash on hand isn’t truly needy,” Gattine said. “But Gov. LePage and Commissioner Mayhew are willing to make someone’s ability to eat contingent on whether they’re able to sell their beat-up snowmobile on Uncle Henry’s. What’s next? Grandma can’t buy groceries until she sells her engagement ring?”

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