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February 12 2016

Maine's Food Stamp Revolution

Patrice J. Lee

Which state deserves the award for leading a revolution in social safety net programs to get people back into self-sufficiency? You might not immediately think Maine, but efforts over the past few years should earn it the honor.

Lately, Maine did something that seems like common sense but hadn’t been done until now. It got 80 percent of able-bodied-food stamp recipients back to work.

Food stamp usage by able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) is the most rapidly growing segment of food stamp recipients in recent years. The most famous case probably being the 26-year-old California surfer earning food stamps while he surfed and played in his rock band.

Work-capable adults are people 18 to 49 years old with no kids or anyone to support who probably fell on hard times during the recession –struggling to find work- and applied for aid when both federal and state governments relaxed requirements.

In response to a growth in food stamp dependence, Maine’s Republican Governor, Paul LePage, recently established work requirements for these adults. Job openings for lower-skilled workers in Maine are abundant reportedly. Even if someone in Maine can’t find a job immediately, the state offers training and community service opportunities. Whichever they choose, they now must choose something.

After the first three months the policy went into effect, the caseload of childless adult aid recipients fell from 13,332 to just 2,678 people from December 2014 to March 2015.

Heritage’s Robert Rector discusses Maine’s tremendous early results in CNSNews:

The Maine food stamp work requirement is sound public policy. Government should aid those in need, but welfare should not be a one-way handout. Nearly nine out of ten Americans believe that able-bodied, non-elderly adults who receive cash, food, or housing assistance from the government should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid.

The Maine work requirement also reduces fraud. The most common type of fraud in welfare involves “off the books” employment. In food stamps, as in other welfare programs, benefits go down as earnings rise.

But “off the books” employment is rarely reported to the welfare office; hiding earnings enables a recipient to “double-dip,” getting full welfare benefits he is ineligible to receive while simultaneously receiving earnings from an unreported job.

A work requirement substantially reduces welfare fraud because insisting a recipient be in the welfare office periodically interferes with holding a hidden job. Recipients cannot be in two places at once. Faced with a work requirement, many recipients with hidden jobs simply leave the rolls. No doubt, a significant part of the rapid caseload decline in Maine involves flushing fraudulent double-dippers out of the welfare system.

Government data show that many adults without children on food stamps use their own funds counter-productively. Over half of able-bodied adults without dependents regularly smoke tobacco; those who smoke consume on average 19 packs of cigarettes per month at an estimated monthly cost of $111. These individuals rely on the taxpayers to pay for their food while they spend their own money on cigarettes.

As we noted, this is not the first instance where Maine made it a priority to target help to those who truly need it. Maine cracked down on welfare recipients using cash to buy drugs. It sought to restrict food stamps usage on candy and unhealthy foods. And by tightening eligibility requirements for those receiving food stamps, the number of people plummeted to below 200,000.

More states and the federal government should follow Maine’s lead in exploring ways to ensure that public assistance is used for its intended purpose: temporary assistance for those in genuine need. Living on assistance should not become a lifestyle, but wrong incentives that reward staying dependent on government rather than gaining independency keep people trapped.

Coupling this with an economy that pushed strong job growth through lower taxes and relaxed business-strangling regulations, and we'd have a recipe to help all Americans get and stay on their feet.

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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