The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week notified the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that it was breaking the law regarding its Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP). The USDA told Maine’s government agency in a letter that its application response times were too low and that its data were insufficient.
The state now ranks last in response time out of 53 SNAP programs in the nation. In 2014, it ranked 36 out of 53, marking a drastic drop in efficiency for a state with one of the highest rates of food insecurity—hunger—in the nation.
At 7.5 percent, Maine ties with Ohio for having the third highest percentage of people with very low food security; Arkansas and Missouri are only marginally worse. These eligible families are not receiving the help they need in a timely manner, and a high percentage of families with children and the elderly are affected. In 2013, about 17 percent of Maine households received SNAP benefits, and about 43 percent of those households had children under 18.
The USDA has been in contact with Maine’s health department multiple times regarding its slow SNAP response times and failure to produce data for the agency, according to the letter from the USDA.
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“Maine’s poor timeliness performance negatively impacts SNAP clients across the state and must be addressed,” the letter reads. “We stand ready to provide technical assistance to improve program administration to serve eligible Maine households in a timely manner and to help the state avoid suspension or disallowance of administrative funding.”
The decline of Maine’s SNAP efficiency falls in line with the policies and sentiments of the state’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Among the roadblocks to eligibility for public assistance put in place by the LePage administration are mandatory drug testing for recipients with past felony convictions and the reinstatement of work requirements, posing further obstacles in a poorly performing state economy.
Between August 2014 and August 2015, about 25,000 Mainers lost SNAP benefits. The governor has been open about his judgment of the state’s SNAP recipients. Last month, LePage’s DHHS sent a letter to federal SNAP administrators asking for permission to ban the purchase of candy and soft drinks with SNAP benefits.
“If we’re going to spend millions on nutrition education for food stamp recipients, we should stop giving them money to buy candy and soda,” DHHS commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a statement. “Maine is facing an obesity epidemic, especially among its low-income population, and we should be solving that problem rather than enabling it.”
LePage’s administration announced in September that it would deny SNAP Supplemental Nutrition Assistance benefits for childless households with certain assets worth more than $5,000.
“Most Mainers would agree that before someone received taxpayer-funded welfare benefits, they should sell nonessential assets and use their savings,” LePage said in a statement regarding the decision. “Hardworking Mainers should not come home to see snowmobiles, four-wheelers or jet skis in the yards of those who are getting welfare. Welfare is a last resort, not a way of life.”
SNAP isn’t the only area in which the LePage administration has tried to defy the federal government to cut off benefits for the poor. The LePage administration spent $53,000 in taxpayer money in a legal battle to remove low-income young adults from the state’s Medicaid rolls.
DHHS has 30 days to turn things around or it could lose matching funds that the federal government provides to states for the cost of overseeing the program. It would not adversely affect those who rely on SNAP because the funding cut would only involve administrative funds.