Food insecurity is on the decline in the United States. Not so in Maine.
A new study, released last week by two leading Maine anti-hunger groups, highlights troubling trends. These trends can only be reversed with policies that help Maine’s struggling families and seniors. Policies based on ideology, not needs, that punish those struggling to earn a living and put food on the table may reduce welfare rolls but they don’t ease the problems of poverty and hunger.
Nationally, the percentage of food-insecure households, dropped in 2015, after having risen during the recession that began in 2008. In 2015, 7.7 percent of American households had low food security, defined as not having access to enough food for a healthy active lifestyle, and 5 percent had very low food security, which means that food intake of one or more household members was reduced and eating patterns disrupted because of insufficient money and other resources for food.
The percentage of food-insecure households — 12.7 percent in 2015 — was a significant drop from 14 percent in 2014.
In Maine, however, 15.8 percent of households reported food insecurity between 2013 and 2015. Of this total, 7.4 percent reported very low food security, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Maine’s very low food security rate was the third highest in the nation, behind Louisiana and Mississippi and tied with Arkansas.
These numbers mean that more than 200,000 Mainers are struggling with hunger. The highest food insecurity rates are in Washington, Aroostook and Piscataquis counties.
Nationally and in Maine, households with children had higher rates of food insecurity. In Maine, 87 percent of the households that sought help from a hunger relief organization in 2016 included a child, a senior or a person with a disability, according to the study by Preble Street, a Portland-based social service agency, and Good Shepherd Food Bank, which distributes food to nearly 400 food pantries throughout the state. The study included interviews with 2,000 people at food pantries across Maine.
Why is this happening? Maine’s slow economic recovery is partly to blame, but so, too, are state policies that are harming Maine’s poorest residents.
One in four people who participated in the study reported being dropped from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the past year, due to policy changes in Maine that reduced eligibility, and when asked about the consequences, 86 percent described making difficult choices between paying for food and other necessities, such as health care and housing.
SNAP provides financial assistance for food purchases, on average about $1.40 per person per meal for eligible people. These benefits are entirely federally funded.
The average SNAP household in Maine receives $224 per month. In 2012, Gallup reported that the average American family spent $151 on food every week.
A study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that the benefits reduce the likelihood of being food insecure by roughly 30 percent.
In 2014, the LePage administration reverted to an old policy to deny SNAP benefits to adults without children unless they worked, volunteered or participated in job training. About 9,000 people lost benefits. Gov. Paul LePage is right to want to break the generational cycle of poverty, but taking away benefits doesn’t solve this problem. Jobs and training opportunities must be available, and wages must be high enough to cover living costs, such as food.
In 2016, the administration instituted an asset test for SNAP benefits, requiring adult recipients to have no more than $5,000 in assets. Only five states have such a requirement.
The LePage administration may celebrate declining numbers of SNAP beneficiaries in Maine, but this doesn’t mean the problems of poverty and hunger are going away.