People line up outside the Utah Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City in this April 13 photo. The $600 federal supplement to unemployment benefits may have kept a number of Mainers from needing benefits from state safety net programs such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and MaineCare, the state's version of Medicaid. Credit: Rick Bowmer | AP

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The number of residents seeking help from Maine’s safety net programs has begun to drop off, although the end of a major federal stimulus program may cause a spike in need in the future, one expert says.

Applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dropped in May by 30 and 40 percent, respectively, from April after double-digit increases during the first months of the pandemic, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, saw a 10 percent decrease in applications.

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Enrollment in the programs overall increased incrementally from April to May. The biggest jump was in MaineCare, with about 3,000 more people receiving coverage in May than the month before. Forty-one percent of those people qualified as part of the state’s Medicaid expansion, according to state data. The expansion began in earnest at the start of Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, and it covers low-income adults without children and some low-income parents. Expansion enrollment, now at more than 55,000, is the highest it has ever been since it began last year.

Enrollment in SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, decreased by 1 percent from April while enrollment in TANF, which distributes small amounts of cash assistance to low-income families with children, increased by 4 percent.

Chris Hastedt, a policy adviser for Maine Equal Justice, said the dropoff likely shows that those who were immediately hit by the pandemic have since been able to receive benefits. Reliance on the programs was likely offset by people applying for unemployment, she said.

Demand for unemployment benefits has reached record highs due to the economic contraction caused by the pandemic, although a widespread fraud scheme has cast doubt on those numbers. New claims for those benefits have also begun to decrease, but weekly claims remain high.

But the picture may change once the $600 weekly benefit Congress provided for in the March stimulus bill known as the CARES Act runs out at the end of July, Hastedt said. That additional payment has helped people pay rent, and is usually high enough to disqualify people from receiving food and cash assistance. Maine’s average weekly unemployment benefit was $343 in March, according to state data, before including the $600 addition.

“We’re not seeing the complete destitution you would see if that $600 wasn’t in place,” Hastedt said, noting others — those who cannot get unemployment or are homeless — are still struggling. “But for some people, when that goes away, they will not be okay.”

The state, anticipating increased need during the coronavirus pandemic, took steps to make accessing safety net benefits easier by suspending a SNAP work requirement and extending the five-year limit for TANF. It received $11 million in federal funds to support the additional need.

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