Must work for food stamps: A modest proposal or recipe for hunger?

Last Updated May 18, 2018 2:22 PM EDT

The nation's federal food-stamp program is at the center of an ideological firestorm. On one side are supporters of a bill in Congress that would impose stiffer work requirements on beneficiaries in exchange for food aid; on the other, anti-hunger advocates say the plan would make life more precarious for already struggling families. 

As the debate rages, one state offers a useful test case for assessing the potential impact of revamping food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), at the national level. Maine introduced work requirements in 2014 under Governor Paul LePage's push to reform its welfare programs. By one measure, the initiative is a success: The state's roll of food-stamp recipients declined from 209,000 residents in 2014 to about 171,000 people as of February.  

"Revenues from people who have gone back to work are up 114 to 120 percent," he told Fox News earlier this year. "People are dropping out of the system."

Yet those who work to combat hunger in Maine say that while food-stamp enrollment has declined, the work requirement hasn't done anything to reduce hunger in the state. In fact, food insecurity has surged since the work requirements were added to the program, forcing some low-income residents to rely on charities to meet their needs. 

"We have huge concerns about similar policies spreading to other states, because it's been a disaster in Maine," said Donna Yellen, deputy director at Preble Street, a Portland, Maine-based social service agency. 

She added, "In March we experienced the highest amount of meals that we ever served at one of our soup kitchens. Our budget is over budget, having to purchase more food because of those increased numbers."

About 16 percent of Maine households were classified as "food insecure" in 2016, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as not having enough food because of a lack of money or other resources. That compares with the national rate of just over 12 percent, according to the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which cited U.S. Department of Agriculture data.  

"We know a significant contributing factor has been these changes" to Maine's food-stamp program, said Good Shepherd Food Bank president Kristen Miale. "In 2010, Maine was around 20th in the nation for food insecurity. Now we're 7th."

Maine's Department of Health and Human Services didn't respond to requests for comment. 

How work requirements work 

The idea behind Maine's work requirements boils down to this: Food-stamp recipients between the ages of 18 and 49 who are able-bodied and who don't have dependents must either work 20 hours a week, be enrolled in school or job training, or volunteer. 

To that end, food-stamp recipients send in a monthly employment or volunteer verification, such as a pay stub or a letter from a nonprofit where they volunteer, to Maine's Department of Health and Human Services. Beneficiaries must also let the state know if their jobs, hours or income changes by a minimal amount within 10 days of knowing about the change. 

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While those rules may sound straightforward, in practice they are taking a toll, said Alison Weiss, campaign coordinator at Maine Equal Justice Partners, a legal aid provider.

"What we saw was the red tape made it hard for people to get needed assistance," she said. "We work with people all the time who were working and want to comply with the requirements, but are genuinely having a hard time navigating the bureaucracy."

Karen Wyman, a caseworker for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said she works with residents to file their paperwork. Many of them are in jobs without set schedules. That can lead to weekly fluctuations in income, triggering the 10-day reporting requirement and putting people at risk of losing benefits if they fail to notify the state in time, she said.  

"Wait times at the department while on the phone is quite long. If someone is trying to do that on the phone while on a break at work, they often can't do that," she said. "It's hard to stay on the phone on hold for 20, 30, 45 minutes to make a simple reporting change."

That might seem hard to believe for Americans who are used to reliable phone and internet service, along with money for things like copying and posting documents. But "The folks trying to access these systems don't have the support that the folks in the middle class take for granted," Wyman said.

Maine employment and wages

Anti-hunger advocates say they support the idea of helping low-income Maine residents find work. But, they argue, denying financial assistance to buy food only makes it tougher for people to get on their feet. 

"We all agree that it's an excellent goal to help people find jobs that allow them to support themselves and their families," Weiss said. "But if the goal is to design a program to achieve that, Maine failed. It really failed."

Maine's unemployment rate stood at 3.1 percent in March, compared with 3.8 percent a year earlier. That masks some of the labor problems for the rural state, such as a loss of 37,000 middle-class jobs since 2001, with most of the losses stemming from manufacturing, according to a study from the Maine Center for Economic Policy. 

Those higher-paying jobs have mostly been replaced by low-wage work, which often doesn't provide stable hours. The new jobs created in Maine have largely been in the service, retail and tourism industries, which can all have volatile hours and, in the case of tourism, only offer seasonal work. The problem is especially acute in rural counties, the Maine Center for Economic Policy said. 

Long-term unemployment is also a problem outside of Portland, which is the only place in the state where the share of Maine residents living below the poverty line has decreased, the Maine Center for Economic Policy found. 

About four of 10 Maine residents live in homes where wage-earners don't make a living wage. That income ranges from about $10.33 an hour for a single person to $22.34 for a single parent, assuming they work full-time on a year-round basis, based on estimates from MIT's living wage calculator. 

"It's a state without a robust economy throughout the state," Yellen said. "It's a state that's primarily older, with high heating bills and high heating costs. It's a recipe for hunger."

The national work requirement

The idea behind increasing the work requirements to qualify for federal SNAP benefits is to help put low-income Americans on the "path of self-sufficiency while not making things harder," said Rachel Millard, communications director for the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R.-Texas, the chief sponsor of a farm bill that would alter the SNAP program.

"Maine is a great case study," she said. "They do feel they have had great success, but we are focused on providing support to states like Maine."

Under the farm bill that was introduced into the House last month, food-stamp recipients ages 18 to 59 who aren't disabled or caring for children under 6 would either have to work or participate in a government-sponsored training program for at least 20 hours a week. That's where federal support would come in -- by spending $1 billion a year to fund it, Rachel said. 

"We really believe the status quo isn't working," she said. "The last time unemployment was as low as it is today was in 2001. At the time, there were 17 million Americans on food stamps. Today, there are 41 million on food stamps."

Millard added, "We haven't seen the drop-off you would expect. We think we're incentivizing the right behaviors."

About 5.2 million Americans who receive food stamps and who would be subject to the work requirements do not currently work enough hours to continue to qualify, according to a report from the Urban Institute. Some of those would likely qualify for an exemption, such as for poor health, and still maintain their benefits, the researchers said. 

Experts who study SNAP say the program is shrinking because of the improving economy and lower U.S. unemployment. "But the improving economy hasn't extended to everybody," said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. 

She added that the rolls aren't coming down as fast as some might expect partly because the population of eligible recipients has increased, based on population growth and an easing of some requirements about a decade ago. "As long as a greater share of people are participating, we won't go down to pre-recession numbers," she said.

Those for and against the work requirements also disagree on another issue: How to measure the success of the food-stamp programs. Anti-hunger advocates, who say it's one of the most effective tools against poverty, point to long-term studies that show poor children who received food stamps were healthier in later life. 

Work-requirement advocates, on the other hand, say the program should be viewed as a success if it helps low-income Americans find "pathways out of poverty," as Millard puts it.

The latter group includes President Trump, who has reportedly threatened to veto the farm bill if it doesn't include work requirements. (While a GOP faction's revolt during a House floor vote May 18 defeated the farm bill by a count of 198 for and 213 against, the legislation is widely expected to be reconsidered before a September government funding deadline.) 

Maine Gov. LePage said he talked with Mr. Trump about Maine's experience with work requirements. 

"He likes what he's seeing in Maine," LePage said.