It’s been only two months since the Department of Health and Human Services patted itself on the back for reducing the number of people getting help to buy food through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps.

On Monday, the department received another distinction: Maine’s SNAP program is the worst administered in the whole country, ranking 53rd out of 53, and the state is in danger of being punished for the sluggish pace at which it processes applications.

Not only are hungry people being forced to wait unnecessarily for help, but Maine taxpayers may end up having to pay more for what should be a federally funded program because of this management failure.

The Department of Health and Human Services promises to do better, but the USDA should not take its eye off Maine’s state government.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew has made clear that reducing the number of people who receive assistance from food stamps is an important measure for her department’s success. Rather than fighting hunger, she has fought to deny people food assistance, by changing eligibility requirements and creating bureaucratic hurdles that lower participation.

Now we learn that the department handles applications for new services so poorly that the headcount in the program is suppressed, achieving a Mayhew policy objective through dysfunction.

The USDA should not let Maine get away with this bureaucratic foot-dragging. The federal government should do what it can to make sure that people who need help get it in a timely manner.

No doubt some will say that reducing the number of people who receive food stamps is a good thing, no matter how you achieve it. They argue that some people take advantage of government services and they drive up the cost of the programs leaving less for the truly needy.

But that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The federal government cited Maine for slow processing of applications. That means people are denied access to the program before there is any determination of their need. Unless you think no one ever deserves any assistance at any time, slowing down entry to the program only extends the suffering of the applicants who are truly needy.

And food stamps is a federal program — Maine’s role is just to administer it. Keeping hungry people hungry does not make the state budget any lighter or ease the burden on state taxpayers.

It also doesn’t motivate the people waiting for help to work harder. It just punishes them.

In her celebratory October press release, Mayhew took credit for a drop in the food stamp rolls, saying: “People on food stamps are living in poverty, and more food stamps does not equal less poverty.”

That may be true, but it’s also true that fewer food stamp clients does not equal less hunger. The cure for that problem is food, not “tough love.”

The USDA should take a close look at Maine’s mismanagement of this program and make sure that hungry people are not the ones who have to pay the price for it.

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