BANGOR – The number of Mainers using food stamps has increased sharply in the past few years, rising more than 50 percent between 2002 and 2005, according to a new report released Tuesday.
The study, Poverty in Maine 2006, also found a steady increase in the number of students eligible for free or reduced school lunch since 2002, as well as a jump from last year in the number of homes using federal low-income heating assistance.
“Poverty is persistent … It’s pervasive and it’s statewide,” said Charles Newton, executive director of Penquis Community Action Program, at the organization’s Bangor headquarters where the report was unveiled Tuesday afternoon. “It’s also personal. These are people we all know.”
The author of the report was the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Center for the Maine Community Action Association.
Every county in the state experienced an increase in food stamp use with the biggest increases coming along the coast in Hancock and Knox counties. Both counties saw jumps of more than 60 percent.
While those relatively affluent counties saw the most dramatic increases, residents there on the whole were still better off compared to most Mainers. In Washington and Somerset counties, for instance, more than 21 percent of households received food stamps last year, compared to less than 10 percent in Hancock County.
Statewide, about 16 percent of households received food stamps on a monthly average last year.
The study’s authors attributed the increase to a mix of factors, including a rise in energy prices, simplification of the application process, and the replacement of traditional paper food stamps with a debit-card system, which is thought to have reduced the stigma of using the state assistance.
While a higher percentage of Washington and Somerset county residents received food stamps than those in other counties, Newton said it was important to look beyond those percentages to actual numbers to get a clearer picture of poverty in Maine. For instance, roughly 3,500 households in Washington County use food stamps compared to 13,000 in Cumberland County, where about 9 percent of the population use food stamps.
The report also showed a steady statewide increase in the number of students eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunch programs. In 2002, about 64,000 students were eligible. Three years later, that number is about 69,000.
About half of the students in Piscataquis and Washington counties were eligible for free lunch last year compared to 22 percent in Cumberland County and 36 percent in Penobscot County. Statewide, 33 percent of children were eligible.
In fiscal year 2004-2005, roughly 9 percent of households participated in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. In actual numbers, about 46,000 households used the program that year, compared to 44,000 the previous year.
Vernon Gray of Garland first took advantage of the heating assistance program last year after being laid off from a textile mill in Guilford. He plans to use it again this year.
“It was a very big help,” said Gray, 62, who, after being unemployed for nine months, retired early from the mill to start his own furniture business.
Tuesday’s report also noted that Maine’s monthly average unemployment rate last year of 4.8 percent was below the national average of 5.1 percent. Washington County’s rate of 8.4 percent was the highest in the state.