Commissioner Mary Mayhew’s Department of Health and Human Services is taking a victory lap this week. It’s touting new data showing a 114 percent jump in earnings among adults who lost access to food stamps after the LePage administration reinstated work requirements for them in 2014.
In the third quarter of 2014, some 6,866 adults without children receiving food stamps earned nearly $3.9 million in total wages. The work requirements took effect in October 2014, and these adults later lost access to food stamps because they didn’t comply. In the fourth quarter of 2015, state labor records show this group earned total wages of more than $8.2 million — a 114 percent rise.
“Ever-increasing welfare caseloads is no measure of success,” Mayhew said in a news release touting the newly released data compiled by the governor’s Office of Policy and Management. “Instead, we should define success and progress by the people who leave welfare and find jobs that put them on a path to independence.”
So let’s evaluate this LePage administration policy by that criterion.
Waived no longer
Since 1996, the nation’s food stamps program, SNAP, has imposed work requirements on nondisabled adults without children. Adults ages 19-49 who don’t fulfill work requirements — generally, spending at least 20 hours per week working or participating in training — can receive no more than three months of food stamp benefits every three years.
The federal government allowed Maine and most states to waive this requirement during the recession and afterward as high unemployment persisted. But Gov. Paul LePage decided against renewing the waiver in 2014.
The result was an 80 percent drop in the number of nondisabled adults without kids receiving food stamps between December 2014 and March 2015.
A limited impact
While the group that lost benefits increased its earnings with time, there’s no indication the imposition of work requirements had anything to do with it. Even as the LePage administration claimed credit — “LePage Administration Welfare Reform Leads to Increased Wages,” read Maine DHHS’ news release — the economist who compiled the numbers didn’t make any assertions about what caused the higher incomes.
The increase fits typical work patterns for SNAP recipients. Since the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is designed to soften the blow of a drop in income, it’s quite common for nondisabled adults to be working before they enroll in SNAP, while they’re receiving benefits and afterward.
In the mid-2000s, about 82 percent of SNAP households with a working-age, nondisabled adult had worked either in the year before or the year after starting to receive SNAP or both, according to 2013 research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. During that same period, only 4 percent of SNAP households with working members did not have work in the following year, showing that receiving SNAP benefits doesn’t dissuade someone from working. In fact, due to SNAP’s structure, those who receive SNAP and start working don’t face a sudden dropoff in benefits as they might with other assistance programs.
Other research has found that childless adults’ work patterns don’t change in response to SNAP work requirements. Specifically, a 2015 research paper found that SNAP recipients who no longer had to fulfill work requirements in order to receive benefits didn’t stop working in response.
Reason to celebrate?
So, if the LePage administration’s policy change likely had little, if anything, to do with a rise in earnings among a population of adults kicked off SNAP, what is the administration celebrating?
While these adults who lost SNAP reported more income in total, only 34 percent had wage records at the end of 2015 compared with 28 percent before work requirements took effect. Average earnings grew among the working population, but two-thirds remained unemployed — and without the help of food stamps.
The LePage administration’s data provide no other insight that could help policymakers evaluate the overall well-being of this adult population. Are there jobs available in the areas in which many of these adults live? Do 40 percent of them lack a high school diploma — as is typical for this SNAP-receiving population nationally — indicating that this population might need something other than the boot in order to get on their feet? What are these adults doing to get by without their small food stamp supplement?
As the LePage administration celebrates dropping people from benefit rolls, the preliminary data about their well-being indicate there’s actually little worth celebrating.