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  • Hearing on Gov. LePage's food stamp asset test shows his proposal is wrong

    photos and article by Ramona du Houx

    The hearing for Governor Paul LePage's  “asset test” for applicants to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps was held October 6, 2015 in Augusta, Maine. 

    Mainers with assets topping $5,000 and who don’t have children will be ineligible for food stamps under LePage’s new plan announced September 16th by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The assets to be counted, if the new rule is applied, will include bank account balances, snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, jet skis, all-terrain vehicles, recreational vehicles, campers and other valuable assets, according to a news release.

    For years, the state has waived the asset test in recognition that Mainers need assistance, not judgment, in their moments of need.

    “Our social safety net is designed to catch people before they fall far enough to hit rock bottom. For many Mainers who are down on their luck, SNAP is the first line of defense against the downward spiral of poverty,” said Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland.

    The average monthly SNAP benefit per person in Maine is below the national average. According to the USDA, the federal agency that administers SNAP to states, among all the states Maine ranks 50th in the average SNAP benefit per household. 

    “Food stamps are meant to temporarily keep people afloat long enough to prevent them from becoming destitute,” said Alfond. “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.”

    LePage has often stated that SNAP and other benefits "cost" the state too much. But the truth is SNAP and those other benefits are federally funded.

    “Common sense says that someone with a ton of cash on hand isn’t truly needy,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. “But Governor 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 next? Grandma can’t buy groceries until she sells her engagement ring? They need to focus on growing economic opportunity and moving people into sustainable employment rather than adding a layer of bureaucracy to government that does nothing to save taxpayer dollars or help people in real need.”

    DHHS estimates that the rule change would affect about 8,600 people who are on food stamps. Maine has already reduced the number of Mainers collecting food stamps by over 5,000. A new rule implemented by the LePage administration requires able-bodied 18- to 49-year-old adults to either be working or in an active job search in order to receive food stamps.

    “This policy contradicts the spirit of programs like SNAP, which is meant to help Mainers get back on their feet,” said Sen. Anne Haskell of Portland, the Senate Democratic lead on the Health and Human Services Committee. “We should be encouraging recipients to save money and build for the future, not forcing them into destitution before we offer a helping hand. The safety net only works if it catches people before they hit rock bottom — not after.”

    LePage is bucking the national trend of state’s moving away from asset tests. Today, 36 states -- including many with Republican governors -- waive asset tests entirely, up from just 12 states in 2008. Those states recognize that the policy discourages the saving and asset-building necessary to climb the economic ladder.

    “A SNAP recipient trying to buy a car to get to and from work will be punished for saving $5,000,” Haskell said. “They’ll be kicked off the program, and forced to decide between transportation and food. We should be encouraging saving, not punishing it.”

    SNAP recipients already face an income test, which cuts off benefits for individuals who earn gross annual incomes of more than $21,775.

    As LePage's policy is based on Federal SNAP policy the governor's plan does not need legislative approval and will become law.Here are some more facts about SNAP:

     

    MYTH: Maine’s SNAP program is too generous.

    FACT: The average monthly SNAP benefit per person in Maine is below the national average. In fact, among all the states, plus Guam and the Virgin Islands, Maine ranks 50th in the average SNAP benefit per household.

     

    MYTH: The asset test will save the state money.

    FACT: All SNAP benefits are paid for by the federal government, not the State of Maine. The state’s only costs are administrative so, if anything, this asset test will cost the state taxpayers’ money.

     

    MYTH: SNAP is a “lifestyle” program, with recipients staying on food stamps for a long time.

    FACT: More than one-quarter of SNAP recipients leave the program before four months, and more than half leave before one year, according to the USDA.

    MYTH: Able-bodied, childless adults are weighing down the SNAP program.

    FACT: As food insecurity in Maine increases, one of the most affected groups is seniors. The number of Maine seniors who rely on SNAP to fight hunger has increased 32 percent in the past five years. Maine’s elderly residents often live on low, fixed incomes. They should not be punished for having saved for retirement, or squirreled away money to keep their homes warm.