Maine to enforce work requirements for "able-bodied" food stamps recipients
AUGUSTA (WGME) -- It's a federal law that hasn't been enforced in Maine since the recession. But Governor LePage and the Department of Health and Human Services will soon start enforcing work requirement for able-bodied adults who collectively get $15-million dollars a year in food stamps. More than 200,000 people in Maine currently receive food stamps to help feed themselves or their families.
But 12,000 of those recipients are, in Governor LePage's words, able-bodied adults who refuse to work. The governor plans to start enforcing the work requirement. No work, no food stamps. Katie Luke, a mother of two young children, says "You shouldn't get a free handout. There are plenty of people in this country that actually need help. And I'm one of those people. I receive help, but I also work."
During the recession, the feds gave Maine and other states waivers from the work requirement for food stamps. That waiver expires this Fall. DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew is making plans to enforce the federal law. She says "We're trying to break the generational poverty and the dependency on these programs by supporting people with meaningful pathways that help them get jobs and support themselves and their families."
Anyone between the ages of 18 and 49, who isn't disabled or pregnant and who doesn't have dependent children living with them, will be required to either work 20 hours a week, volunteer for a community agency, or participate in a job training or education program. But democratic state representative Peggy Rotundo says "There are people who are struggling to find work. And it's going to hurt them."
Rotundo says the governor is just trying to score points with voters. She says "This is about politics and about the governor's interest in detracting people's attention away from a really poor job record." Commissioner Mayhew disagrees. She says "It's always difficult for me that helping people get a job would ever be considered political. The governor is committed to helping people out of poverty."
The workforce requirement for food stamps eligibility is scheduled to take effect on October first. DHHS will start sending out notices in the coming weeks to those 12,000 food stamp recipients who aren't currently meeting this requirement.
Thursday, July 24 - UPDATE
A memo dated May 23, 2014 from the USDA, which oversees the food stamp program, says Maine is one of 37 states that still qualifies for an exception to the work rule. State leaders announced they will not ask for a waiver.
A CBS 13 investigation found DHHS does have the authority to make this rule change under the Maine Administrative Procedure Act. The next step is a public hearing. Written comments and testimony can also be sent in to the department.
A public hearing is set for August 20, 2014, at 1 p.m. at 19 Union Street in Augusta.
DHHS can then adopt the rule change without a vote, subject to review by the Attorney General.
Governor Paul LePage couldn't be reached on Thursday to talk about enforcing the federal rule.
Instead, his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett talked to CBS 13 about the change, that she said, is one of the governor's priorities.
"This is something for almost four years the governor has talked about and he is a man of his word," she said. "He understands poverty, generational poverty specifically, and he knows how we can empower people to become economically independent."
Requiring able-bodied adults to work for food stamp benefits is a federal law, but Maine has received a waiver to be exempt since the recession. This October, the LePage administration will let that waiver expire.
Some advocacy groups, like Maine Equal Justice Partners, said some parts of Maine haven't recovered when it comes to unemployment, and jobs are still hard to find.
"And they're certainly correct in saying we have higher unemployment rates in certain parts of the state and there is some difficulty in finding jobs, but there are training initiatives or training programs that are available," said Bennett. "There are also plenty of volunteer opportunities for people."
Despite accusations from Democrats, Bennett said this isn't a move to score points with voters.
"Whether its an election year or not, the governor is going to move forward with the welfare plan because it's ultimately, in the end, it's gonna help Mainers," she said.
The governor will return to Maine over the weekend. Bennett said he will address questions about the issue next week.
Plenty of reaction across the state to the ultimatum issued by Governor LePage to 12,000 able bodied Mainers; Get a job, get job training, volunteer, or no more food stamps. We found three so-called "able-bodied" Mainers who are unemployed. They speak out about their job search, food stamps, and the governor's ultimatum.
Dylan Huggins, from Wiscasset, got laid off last summer. Now, he is learning to be a truck driver thanks to tuition paid for by a career center. Dillon also receives food stamps each month. He would like that to continue until he gets a job. But he also understands the governor's point of view and says every unemployed, able-bodied person should try to get a job.
He says "I think they should, yeah. You can't stay on the system forever." Mike Roland, manager of the Portland Career Center agrees. He says "All of us believe that the best social program is a job. And that's what we're here to do. And we've been here in previous administrations and we'll be here in future administrations doing the same thing."
Nancy Dorrans is an unemployed travel agent. She also receives food stamps. She says there is no excuse for people who are unemployed to stop trying. She says "It's frustrating for someone that's looking for work. But it shouldn't deter them from looking and trying to find something." Byron Saabedra says he is trying to get a job, but he says it is not easy.
He says "Many people like myself are trying to work and trying to get a job." But Saabedra disagrees with the governor's methods. He says this is no time to be cutting benefits to people in need. He says "The governor, I'm not sure if he's trying to save money or what. But this is not the way to save money, to take resources from people who really need it."
Saabedra says that is true regardless if you think they deserve food stamps or not. All three unemployed people we spoke with say food stamps should go to people in need. They say that includes people who are unemployed. But they also say it shouldn't be a free ride. Dylan Huggins says "I'm learning a lot. And it's going to make me a better person in the long run."
According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services nearly 12,000 people in the Food Supplement Program are considered 'Able-bodied Adults without Dependents'and will now have to meet the new requirements to still receive food stamps.
You can meet the requirements by volunteering for a certain amount of hours, by getting a job and working a minimum of 20 hours a week, or by working to get a job.
CBS13 met up with Women Unlimited, a nonprofit that offers training for men and women to get back to work, they say there are resources to help individuals get that first job.
"Any job is better than no job, people are hiring it may not be your dream job but people hire people who are working before they hire people who are not so even if you have to go to work at a job that you're not crazy about it's a way to get back into the working world and we can help," said Lib Jamison, Executive Director of Women Unlimited.
You can find how you can reach out to the nonprofit and their job training and counseling services HERE.
The Maine Department of Heath and Human Services says you can also participate in the Department of Labor's Competitive Skills Scholarship Program which teaches skills that will lead to higher paying jobs. That will also fulfill the work requirement, you can find details through the Maine Career Center.
Brad Rogers, Marissa Bodnar, Jon Chrisos, Lexie O'Connor, Jana Barnello contributed to this report