Thousands of low-income Maine families will see an increase in supplemental food stamp benefits beginning March 1.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew announced Wednesday that the Working Families Supplement benefit for those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds will more than triple, from $15 to $50 per month.

The benefit is available to participants who work at least 30 hours a week, or 20 hours if they have a young child. There are about 13,000 participants who qualify for the increase.

The annual cost of increasing the supplemental benefit is estimated at $5.7 million, but it will be paid for with existing surplus funds from another federal assistance program – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The change is the latest example of how Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has moved to shift away from policy favored by her predecessor, Republican Paul LePage. One of Mills’ first actions was to call for the immediate expansion of Medicaid, something LePage had blocked even after Maine voters approved it through referendum. She also has suggested in public comments that her administration will be less critical of those receiving assistance.

“Too many Maine families who receive SNAP and TANF are still going hungry because their level of aid is simply inadequate,” Lambrew said in a statement. “Putting this existing funding to use will help provide the resources they need to feed themselves, take care of their basic level of need, and position themselves to get to work.”

One of LePage’s top priorities from the beginning of his first term was to reduce the number of Mainers receiving welfare benefits. In his time in office, enrollment in both SNAP and TANF decreased substantially, in large part because of a newly imposed lifetime cap of 60 months for TANF benefits.

In December 2011, there were 13,503 active TANF cases totaling $5.9 million for that month, and 254,416 Mainers received food stamps, accounting for $31.9 million that month.

By last December, there were 3,943 TANF cases totaling $2.1 million, and 167,596 Mainers collecting $17.3 million in food stamp benefits.

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Even though enrollment declined, under the TANF program Maine still continued to receive the same annual federal block grant – approximately $78 million. Some of that money was used in other ways, including for job training, but much of it was stockpiled. At one point, the state held more than $150 million in unspent TANF funds, even as poverty remained flat or increased in some areas.

According to DHHS, the increase in the Working Families Supplement benefit was authorized by the Legislature in 2011 but was never put into effect.

In her statement, Lambrew talked about the “cliff” effect that happens for families who are working and not eligible for some benefits, like TANF, but still struggle to make ends meet.

The supplement benefit is important for those families, too, because it’s not subject to the 60-month cap.

Lambrew also said Wednesday that Maine families who receive food stamps will receive their March benefits a week early to “limit the ongoing effects of last month’s federal government shutdown.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

 


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