AUGUSTA, Maine — Citizens and anti-poverty advocates on Tuesday decried Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to block Mainers with more than $5,000 in certain assets from receiving food stamps, saying it will only victimize senior citizens, the disabled, veterans and the poor.
The Department of Health and Human Services has said the $5,000 asset test will be implemented by mid-November. Comments against the rule voiced Tuesday focused on the administrative burden the test would present, possible errors that could boot qualified people from the program and arguments that it would force people who might need food stamps for a short time to sell all their possessions.
“In the end, we simply don’t understand why this is a top priority for our state,” said Clara Whitney, a spokeswoman for the Good Shepherd Food Bank. “There is so much work to be done to connect people with education, training and good jobs. … Maine is going in the wrong direction.”
LePage’s plan to prevent Mainers with more than $5,000 in certain assets is defined as an option in federal law, but Maine, like many states, has waived the test since 2010. DHHS is now moving to revive the test.
The value of a home or a household’s primary vehicle wouldn’t count toward the $5,000 test, but bank balances, boats, snowmobiles, motorcycles, Jet Skis, all-terrain vehicles, campers and other property would.
DHHS estimates the new rule would affect 8,600 people who are in the program now. Statewide, there are approximately 201,000 people receiving food supplement assistance, according to DHHS data from August.
Erin Calloway of the Piscataquis Healthy Community Project said many of her clients face double challenges of being in a hard place to live, economically, while also finding it difficult to access government services because they live so far from service centers.
“I find it so absurd that this is coming from an administration led by a governor who wants people to get on their feet and work but which seems to be doing everything possible to make that as hard as possible,” said Calloway.
Not everyone testified against the rule. Beth Drugach of Saco said it’s not fair for people to accept public assistance if they can afford recreational items.
“I live in an area where day to day, I see people abusing the system and that is what I’m speaking about today,” said Drugach. “I don’t have a camper or a boat because I can’t afford it. … I don’t want anyone to go hungry or without shelter but I think there needs to be continued conversations about this.”
LePage has said repeatedly that his goal is redirecting scarce public resources toward those who need it most.
DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said Tuesday that the department already has the data it needs and that the asset test will go into effect on new applications and reapplications sometime in November.