Before recently released food stamp rates in Maine get turned into just one more weapon in the gubernatorial race, the public should look closely at the report that produced the rates and observe that a substantial part of the increase may come from Maine doing things right.
As Ann W. Acheson of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Center recently reported in “Poverty in Maine 2006,” food stamp use is up almost 50 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2005. As the report notes, the poverty rate in Maine and in the United States “has been trending upward,” while Maine’s rate is lower than the national average and fell slightly in 2003. An older population – Maine is among the oldest states – tends to produce even higher rates, so the fact that Maine’s rate is lower than the national measure is worth noting.
Still, there are additional sources for the rising food stamp rate, and the report lays them out succinctly. People who are underemployed or who have exhausted unemployment benefits may be one source, according to Ms. Acheson. Second, higher energy costs could have pushed people toward government support. Third, the 2002 federal Farm Bill made qualifying for the benefits easier. Fourth, Maine has tried “to increase the historically low participation rate of eligible elder adults in the food stamp program.”
Fifth, the Department of Health and Human Services has worked on reducing the stigma of using food stamps by switching to a debit card-like system.
Sixth, DHHS has simplified its filing process during the time studied so that a single application can be used for up to 22 different types of state government services.
Given that the number of Maine residents who would qualify for food stamps – those with net incomes below 130 percent of poverty – has barely budged, what many of these factors suggest is that government has removed barriers for people who qualified earlier but did not receive services. It suggests government is getting more efficient.
That idea is supported by the fact that, for the last three years, Maine has won high-performance awards from the federal Health and Human Services, which come with funding worth $424,000 a year to support the food stamp system. Maine reaches more people who qualify for services than any other state in New England and has improved access substantially.
The state’s poverty rate is still too high, and Maine certainly needs more jobs that pay well and allow a family to be more self-sufficient. But don’t mistake the rise in food stamp use as a sign that poverty has grown substantially worse here. It may be more an indication that state government is operating effectively.