About 180,000 low-income, elderly or disabled Mainers who receive food stamps will get their February benefits ahead of time, on Thursday, the Mills administration announced Monday.

The administrative move will extend by a month food stamp benefits that otherwise would have ended in early February if the partial government shutdown continues.

Jeanne Lambrew, Gov. Janet Mills’ nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, said Monday that families should plan their budgets with the understanding that they are receiving their February food stamp allotments early.

“The ongoing federal shutdown puts critical services, including nutrition assistance for Maine children and families, at risk,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a written statement. “If the shutdown continues past February, 180,000 Maine families, including thousands of children, seniors and veterans, could be affected over the coming months. I will continue to monitor the effects of this shutdown and marshal Maine’s resources wherever possible to protect our families, but I urge the federal government to end this shutdown immediately before it permanently harms our state.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the $71 billion food stamp program, advised states earlier this month to deliver February food stamps – the official name is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – in January to avoid benefit cuts in February.

The shutdown started over three weeks ago when congressional Democrats refused President Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Democrats contend that border wall funding should not be tied to whether the federal government operates.

The partial shutdown has affected 800,000 federal workers, but employees who perform essential services remain on the job, such as TSA airport security agents and air traffic controllers, customs and border patrol agents and Internal Revenue Service employees who process tax refund checks.

If the shutdown lasts long enough to cut food stamps, it would be one of the first large-scale public assistance programs affected, as 44.2 million Americans, about 14 percent of the population, receive help buying groceries.

Jeanne Lambrew, acting Maine health and human services commissioner, said that families should plan their budgets knowing they are getting their food stamp benefit early.

“The Maine Department of Health and Human Services will ensure every SNAP participant receives their February benefits, just earlier than usual. Families should be mindful of this when they are planning their shopping for the month, and budget accordingly,” Lambrew said in a statement. “While the Department will continue to monitor this situation, we urge the federal government to end this shutdown and fund these critical services.”

WITHOUT SNAP, ‘I’M PRETTY MUCH TOAST’

Tifani Pedro, 40, of Old Town, said SNAP benefits are essential for her because she’s disabled and suffers from a number of medical and physical conditions, including bipolar disorder, PTSD, diabetes and neuropathy. Pedro said her only income is Social Security disability, and she receives $190 per month in SNAP benefits.

“If I don’t have SNAP, I’m pretty much toast,” Pedro said. “I just don’t know what I would do.”

Pedro said as a diabetic she has an extremely strict diet she must follow, and food pantries often don’t have much food she can eat. Pedro said she’s happy to hear benefits will continue through February, but she’s worried that the shutdown will last into the spring.

Moriah Geer, a caseworker with Maine Equal Justice Partners, helps answer questions from people who may qualify for SNAP and other public assistance programs. Geer said since the shutdown, she’s been fielding a lot of questions about what it will mean, and she’s grateful that the Mills administration is making sure benefits are extended as long as they can be.

“People are really confused about the shutdown, and are really worried,” Geer said. “Many people rely on SNAP and it would be really tough on them if benefits were to stop.”

Dottie Rosenbaum, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., that studies SNAP and other federal programs, wrote in a blog post last week that if SNAP benefits were to be cut because of the shutdown, it would hurt families, and also grocery stores and other retailers that have SNAP customers.

“If the shutdown continues and USDA determines it does not have the authority to extend SNAP in March without congressional action, many low-income households would be at risk of serious hunger and hardship,” Rosenbaum wrote. “Emergency food assistance providers such as food banks and food pantries, as well as other local community service providers, would likely see dramatic increases in demand as families and individuals scrambled to fill the hole in their monthly food budgets.”

WORK REQUIREMENTS, WAIVERS

The Trump administration tried to persuade Congress to approve stricter work requirements for people to receive SNAP, but Congress did not include the measures when approving a bill late last year extending SNAP funding. The Trump administration is looking at using executive powers to implement new work requirements, but the proposals have yet to be released.

In Maine, former Gov. Paul LePage re-instituted work requirements in 2014, which combined with an improving economy resulted in fewer Mainers using the food stamp program, declining from 243,000 in 2010 to 180,000 currently. States can obtain a waiver – citing economic hardship – to bypass the federal work requirements. The existing work requirements – 20 hours per week – are in effect for non-disabled adults without dependents, and there are many exceptions, such as for students.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

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