A move by the Trump administration to narrow the number of Americans who qualify for food assistance has been met with strong opposition from Maine’s two senators and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a 1st District Democrat.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a 1st District Maine Democrat, met Tuesday with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue before his appearance before her committee. Provided photo

But U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a 2nd District Democrat, is taking more of a wait-and-see position on a proposed rule change at the Department of Agriculture that would tighten work requirement provisions in places where unemployment rates have dropped.

Basically, President Donald Trump is seeking to broadly expand the work requirements Maine already imposed in 2015 on recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP benefits.

“Based on experiences in my home state of Maine, I believe this proposed rule is misguided and ignores the complexities of food insecurity,” Pingree wrote in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, signed a joint letter with 45 other senators insisting “the proposed changes would take food assistance away from Americans struggling to find stable employment while doing nothing to help them to actually become permanently employed.”

They said the proposal directly contradicted congressional intent laid out in last year’s Agriculture Improvement Act that rejected “similar harmful changes to SNAP.”

The SNAP program in Maine already limits benefits for non-disabled adults without young children — referred to by bureaucrats as Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents — to no more than three months during a three-year period. Its existing program would not be affected by the proposed rule change.

When former Gov. Paul LePage’s Department of Health and Human Services imposed the change, about 9,000 Mainers lost SNAP benefits.

Pingree said that one result has been that “the prevalence of food insecurity in Maine has actually worsened.”

Perdue’s department said that while food insecurity dropped to 12.7 percent of American households, it went up in Maine to cover almost 16 percent.

“Additionally, one in five children in Maine experiences food insecurity,” Pingree said.

While King, Collins and Pingree took solid stands against the proposed change, Golden was less clear.

He said he would consider revisions to push adults without dependents to get jobs, but he doesn’t want to see changes that would make it harder for children to get the food they need.

“Pushing people to find employment is in their best interests,” the first-term House member said.

As it is, he said, the Perdue proposal is not something he has to look into deeply or vote on yet, so he is not ready to speak out on it.

“I just don’t choose to fight every little battle,” Golden said.

Perdue said in December that Trump directed him to push the change because SNAP is meant to provide “assistance through difficult times, not lifelong dependency.”

“Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” Perdue said. “As we make benefits available to those who truly need them, we must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency. Moving people to work is common-sense policy, particularly at a time when the unemployment rate is at a generational low.”

He said the rule change, which would make it harder for states to get a waiver to allow people to collect SNAP benefits longer, would only apply “to non-disabled people, between the ages of 18 and 49, with no dependents.”

To collect the food help, he said, they would have to work or volunteer for at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits for more than three months in any 36-month period.

Pingree said, though, that waivers must be flexible, “because states need to respond to food insecurity in ways that work for them” and decried the imposition of “a one-size-fits-all solution” for every state.

“I believe that access to food is a fundamental right and am very concerned that this proposed rule will only perpetuate food insecurity in Maine and across the country,” Pingree told the agriculture chief.

She said Maine learned that changing the policy “does not magically create jobs nor does it reduce food insecurity.”

The letter signed by King and Collins said Congress wanted to mitigate the strictness of the time limits imposed by allowing waivers for states that want to provide more food aid, something every state but Delaware has done at some point.

Their letter said there is no evidence that imposing time limits on recipients “has resulted in these individuals achieving self-sufficiency through new employment opportunities.”

The senators said instead of taking the route pursued by Perdue, Congress chose instead to focus on improved training, workforce partnerships and other measures to help people get and keep good jobs.

“These efforts recognize that many individuals face substantial barriers to employment that an arbitrary time limit or unemployment floor do nothing to address,” the senators’ letter said.

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