Volunteers wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of coronavirus while unpacking donated goods at food pantry at the First Universalist Church, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, in Norway, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — More Mainers are turning to public assistance programs as winter approaches, a possible indicator of increasing hardship in the coming months as coronavirus cases continue to surge and economic prospects remain bleak.

New applications for food and cash assistance and Maine’s expanded Medicaid program have ticked upward in recent months after dropping over the summer. Demand for aid is likely to surge at the end of the year as most Mainers receiving unemployment stand to lose benefits, though the eligibility requirements for other programs are complicated and benefits are smaller.

That could add to the hardship of tens of thousands of Mainers over the holiday season. A Census survey in early November found that 7.6 percent of Maine adults lived in households where there was either “sometimes” or “often” not enough to eat in the previous week, though that was better than the national rate of 12 percent. Thirty-one percent of Mainers were having trouble paying for typical household expenses, the survey found.

Applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs are up about 50 percent from the summer, while applications to Medicaid have increased steadily since September. The state also continues to see more than 100 applications for rental assistance per day.

Food stamp and TANF applications spiked at the beginning of the pandemic but fell over the summer with robust federal aid and partial business reopenings. They jumped again when enhanced unemployment benefits expired in early August and have continued to increase since, with the four-week average of new applications hitting its highest level since May this month.

As of Nov. 1, about 148,000 Mainers were receiving food stamps while just shy of 10,000 were receiving TANF, according to state data. Demand for both programs is likely to increase when unemployment benefits expire at December’s end, said Chris Hastedt, a policy advisor with Maine Equal Justice. But she warned that not all individuals receiving unemployment benefits would be eligible for either program in January.

The state has increased access to safety net programs, including food stamps and TANF, during the pandemic, waiving time limits and cutting back on interviews. But both still have asset limits. TANF, which provides cash assistance, is only available to families with children.

Benefits in both programs are also smaller than those from unemployment. In October, the average weekly unemployment benefit in Maine was $296, according to state data, which amounts to a monthly income of less than $1,200. SNAP benefits, which can only be used for food, vary based on household size, with the monthly benefit for a family of three at $509.

“There’s really sort of no substitute that is perfectly aligned with what people are losing,” Hastedt said.

Eligibility requirements are broader for Medicaid, which Maine expanded last year. That program has seen enrollment climb over the course of the pandemic, driven by high unemployment. As of Nov. 1, there were nearly 330,000 people enrolled in Medicaid in Maine, an increase of about 10 percent since February. The first two weeks of November saw more than 5,500 new applications, the largest two-week increase all year.

Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the recent spike was likely in part due to individuals learning they were eligible for Medicaid while looking for health insurance during the Affordable Care Act’s open enrollment period, which began Nov. 1. She noted that Medicaid enrollment is available year round.

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