A Trump administration proposal to eliminate automatic enrollment in the food stamp program could result in tens of thousands of Mainers not receiving the assistance they need to buy groceries, according to estimates released Thursday.

The proposed rule would forbid states from automatically enrolling people in food stamps when they apply for other public assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the free-and-reduced school lunch program.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services projects that 27 percent of Maine food stamp recipients, 44,068 people, including 11,031 children and 9,598 seniors or people with disabilities, would be affected by the rule change. It’s unknown how many of those people would sign up for food stamp benefits if they weren’t automatically enrolled.

“This proposal would take healthy food off the plates of children, older Mainers, and people with disabilities while punishing hardworking families,” said Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner. “We urge the (Trump) administration to rescind this misguided proposal, which will hurt Maine people who are just trying to make ends meet.”

A national think tank, meanwhile, estimates the rule change would affect about 25,000 Mainers. It was not immediately clear Thursday why the estimates diverged, but Maine DHHS methodology used actual caseloads from this year, while the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation based its estimates on statistical modeling of how many people per state might not receive the nutritional assistance, and relied on older Maine data.

The foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy focused on health issues, released state-by-state estimates Thursday for losses under the proposed rule. The foundation estimated 14 percent of Mainers with food stamps – officially called SNAP – would not sign up for the assistance that is used to buy groceries.

With about 164,000 Mainers currently receiving food stamps, that would mean about 23,000 people would not take advantage of the assistance. Because the foundation was using slightly older food stamp enrollment figures – when enrollment was higher – the foundation estimated 25,921 would lose SNAP benefits.

“The Trump administration clearly does not understand that for millions of people SNAP is a lifeline,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in an email Thursday night. “At a time when one in five children in Maine does not have enough to eat, the loss of food assistance and automatic enrollment in reduced school meal programs would be devastating.”

“This misguided rule ignores the complexities of food insecurity and will punish millions of people living on the poverty line.”

Nationally, 9 percent of food stamp recipients, about 3.6 million people, would be affected by the administration’s proposal, the foundation estimated. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have some form of automatic enrollment into the food stamp program, while 11 states, including Virginia, South Dakota and Missouri, do not. All New England states automatically enroll people to receive food stamps when they apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

“This rule is aimed at harming some of the most vulnerable people in our state, children, older Mainers and people with disabilities,” said Kathy Kilrain del Rio of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta-based think tank that advocates on behalf of low-income people. “Any policy that makes it harder for people to get food – such as the SNAP rule proposed by the Trump administration – is going to make more Mainers hungry and that affects their health, ability to work, success in school, and the well-being of people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s wrong.”

The Trump administration is taking public comments through Sept. 23, and while it’s unknown how long it could take for the rule to go into effect, it would likely take several months.

Federal officials have argued that implementing the rule will prevent those who are not eligible for food stamps from receiving them. The status quo “compromises program integrity and reduces public confidence that benefits are being provided to eligible households,” according to the federal document explaining the rationale for curtailing the program.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in August that states “have misused this flexibility” in the food stamp program.

“We are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it,” Perdue said, according to news reports.

The Mills administration sent a letter to Perdue in August urging him to maintain the current automatic enrollment rules.

 


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