A proposed change to work requirements for older adults who receive food stamps could take assistance away from vulnerable Mainers and push them further into poverty, advocates warn.

The pending debt ceiling agreement reached over the weekend would expand work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients ages 50 to 54 who don’t have children at home or don’t have a disability. Under current law, those work requirements stop after age 49.

“Expanding SNAP’s already ineffective work requirements to older adults will cause real harm. It will take food assistance away from more people without increasing employment,” said Alex Carter, a policy advocate with Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit civil legal aid and economic justice organization in Augusta. “There’s a real fundamental flaw in the logic that taking food off of people’s plates incentivizes them to work, when we know it actually makes it harder to find employment.”

About 100,000 Maine households receive SNAP benefits each month but it is unclear how many recipients would be impacted by the change because the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program, does not have that information, a spokesperson said Tuesday. The department declined to comment on the proposal.

Amanda Marino, advocacy and policy manager for Good Shepherd Food Bank, said they regularly get photos of empty shelves from food pantries across the state. People who lose food stamps often turn to local food programs, which are now trying to figure out who would be impacted by the change and how to help them.

“It’s really scary to think about thousands of Mainers in that age bracket losing SNAP,” Marino said. “It will not incentivize finding work, it just makes finding work more difficult because you have another thing to worry about.”


The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates nearly 900,000 people could lose SNAP benefits nationwide.

“The proposed debt ceiling agreement comes on the backs of people all across America trying to make ends meet. The expansion of cruel, harsh and arbitrary time limits on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for older unemployed and underemployed adults struggling in the labor market will only deepen hunger and poverty,” Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C., which advocates for people struggling against poverty-related hunger, said in a statement.

But the proposed deal also would expand food stamp access for veterans, homeless people and young adults transitioning out of the foster care system by exempting them from work requirements, which Biden administration officials have highlighted as a victory. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has characterized the increased work requirements as a win, though other Republicans have said the proposed changes don’t go far enough.

The federal government currently has two sets of work requirements for adults who receive SNAP. Most adults who are working less than 30 hours a week or not caring for a young child must notify the state employment office that they are available to work and must accept any suitable job offer.

Able-bodied adults under 50 who do not live with dependent children are generally limited to three months of benefits in a three-year period unless they are working at least 80 hours a month or are in job training. The time limits for SNAP benefits were suspended during the federal public health emergency but went back into effect this year in states that do not have a waiver, including Maine.

But people can be excused from work requirements if they are unable to work due to physical or mental limitations, pregnancy or have someone younger than 18 in their household, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


If the deal passes, a large share of low-income adults in the 50-to-54 age group who are in poor health will lose the basic assistance they need to buy groceries because they aren’t able to meet the work-reporting requirement, Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in a statement. The exemption system is notoriously laden with red tape, she said.

“Those newly at risk of losing food assistance have very low incomes, typically well below the poverty line, and will be pushed even deeper into poverty when they lose SNAP,” Parrott said.

Advocates say many people in that age range have left the workforce to care for aging parents or because they have health issues that don’t meet the federal definition of a disability, but still prevent them from working.


Natalie Varrallo, the food programs director at the Portland nonprofit Preble Street, said the people who would be impacted by the change are already vulnerable, and taking away SNAP makes them even more so. People in rural areas and people of color are always hit the hardest by changes that make it harder to access food, health care and other support, she said.

“They already fall through so many systemic cracks,” she said. “This change will really provide a huge additional barrier to adequate nutrition in our communities.”


In Maine, the proposed changes come at a time when food programs across the state are struggling to keep up with a sharp increase in demand following the end of pandemic-era boost to SNAP benefits. It has become hard to keep up at Preble Street, which fields calls every day from people who have never been to a food pantry but now need help accessing food, Varrallo said.

Taking very limited food assistance away at a time when people are already being squeezed by higher housing and food costs is not going to help people find employment, said Carter, the Maine Equal Justice policy advocate, citing the negligible impact on employment when former Gov. Paul LePage decided to no longer seek a federal waiver for the work requirements for able-bodied adults.

A 2016 report by the Maine Office of Policy and Management – which is now called the Office of Innovation and Future – that examined work requirements in the SNAP program showed that over a one-year period, only 4% of the 6,866 people who lost their SNAP benefits for failing to meet the work requirements gained employment. During that time, the Maine economy improved significantly, with the unemployment rate dropping from 5.2% to 3.9%.

Marino, the Good Shepherd policy manager, said the proposed changes don’t address the root causes of hunger and poverty.

“It creates a narrative that individual changes can end hunger and poverty,” she said. “That is not the case.”

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