Maine administers the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, so Mainers who might otherwise go hungry can put food on the table. The program, formerly known as “food stamps,” benefits children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people who are temporarily down on their luck – more than 190,000 Mainers. Nearly three-quarters live in poverty and nearly one-quarter below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.
But recently, Gov. Paul LePage asked the feds to allow him to prevent the use of SNAP benefits to buy sugary snacks and drinks. The feds said his plan needed work before it could be implemented. Gov. LePage’s response? He threatened to stop operating the SNAP program in Maine altogether if he doesn’t get his way.
All of us occasionally enjoy a snack or a sugary drink. And according to the Urban Institute, SNAP recipients don’t do so much more or less than anyone else. So, the logic behind his threat is baffling. I can understand wanting to encourage better eating habits. Obesity is a near-epidemic, and many of us could stand to eat more healthful foods. But I fundamentally disagree that canceling SNAP – taking food away from those 190,000 Mainers – is a solution to obesity or poor eating habits.
In fact, it may make things worse: a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that needy children who receive SNAP benefits have a 16 percent lower obesity rate and an 18 percent higher high school completion rate in adulthood than similar children who didn’t receive benefits.
The governor is trying to use the stick to improve health, when the carrot does much better to change people’s buying patterns and get nutritious food onto Mainers’ plates. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study revealed that matching dollars for the purchases of fresh fruits and veggies increased SNAP recipients’ likelihood of buying those products. The real problem here is that healthy food is more expensive while junk food is subsidized and marketed. Any real solution must make nutritious food more affordable to poor people.
In December, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services was cited by USDA for slow processing of SNAP applications – the worst administered in the whole country. Perhaps our governor should concentrate on fixing known problems like that first instead of unreal solutions to mischaracterized problems.
But the threat to cancel the program isn’t just illogical. It’s also illegal. Maine law requires the state to administer SNAP. It’s not a choice. So not only is Gov. LePage willing to take food away from thousands of kids and seniors, he’s apparently willing to break the law to do it.
If only that were the only example of this administration flouting the law. Unfortunately, there’s more.
Every year, Maine receives a block of federal funds to administer programs that benefit low-income children and their families. It is meant to ensure that shelter, child care, clothing, and other basic needs are met.
But a recent newspaper investigation revealed that the LePage administration was misappropriating these federal funds – shifting them to pay for other programs that don’t help impoverished children or their families. This transfer of money violated a federal law that requires the funds to be used for their intended purpose.
It was just the latest example of Gov. LePage’s “welfare reform” gone wrong. Over the last few years, a lot of people have been disqualified from receiving these benefits at all. I wish I could say that it was because they’re no longer in poverty, and no longer need help to provide their children with those basics. But the reality is, Gov. LePage simply slashed people from the program and hoarded more than $100 million worth of those federal funds designed to help them. Meanwhile, in five years, the number of children living in extreme poverty has increased by 50 percent in Maine.
By any reasonable definition, this system to help children is broken when more children are living in extreme poverty, not fewer. I hope you believe, as I do, that children in extreme poverty are deserving of help. It is time we measure the success of welfare programs by how many people we get back on their feet, not by how many people we can cut from the welfare rolls.
So let’s keep our eye on the ball, and no longer accept failure when thousands of children’s futures are at stake. Maine must make sure everyone gets a decent chance in Maine’s future economy with the right kind of helping hand to get people out of poverty and succeeding on their own.
(Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, represents all of Lincoln County except Dresden, plus Washington and Windsor.)