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Maine Food Stamp Recipients Facing Double Whammy
09/20/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Although they're currently $35 billion away from a compromise, the Republican-controlled U.S. House and the Democratically-dominated Senate are poised to make significant cuts to the nation's food stamp program. And this comes on top of scheduled funding decreases in November. In Maine, where about one out of five people receive food stamps, the looming benefit reduction is viewed by the state Department of Health and Human Services as a necessary course correction for a program that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. A.J. Higgins has more.

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The nearly $40 billion cut to the nation's food stamp program passed by majority Republicans in the U.S. House is so far apart from the $4 billion reduction approved by the Democratically-controlled Senate, any decrease will have to be the product of bipartisan compromise.

Independent Sen. Angus King is not optimistic about the bill's chances. "I don't think there's much support in the Senate for the $40 billion cut," King says.

But King remains convinced that Senate Democrats and House Republicans will craft some kind of compromise that will have a significant impact on Maine, where about 250,000 residents currently rely, to some degree, on food stamps administered through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - also known as SNAP.

But even before the reductions kick in that are expected from Congress, expanded food stamp benefits that were approved as part of the federal stimulus bill four years ago will expire on Nov. 1. The potential double reduction for the program will hit hardest in states that depend on food stamps the most.

Maine - along with three other states - ranks second in the country among those who rely heavily on SNAP, with 18 percent of the population receiving some level of benefit. Those are levels that Republicans say are no longer sustainable for the $80 billion-a-year program. King says he will consider ideas that seek to bring those costs down.

"I'm willing to look at reasonable limitations - like I say I don't believe these support programs should be lifetime entitlements," King says. "But I also think we've got to realize that most of the people who get food stamps, or a food stamp benefit, are children, the elderly and disabled."

"With limited resources, the federal government, state governments, have got to look at where our true priorities are, what we can afford, what we can sustain," says Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. "And the food stamp program - much like all the other programs - needs to be under that same type of scrutiny and evaluation." Mayhew says she understands why measures are needed to bring food stamp costs down.

While discussions continue between the House and Senate on proposed cuts, Mayhew says real reductions for SNAP will take effect a little more than a month from now, when the temporary program expansion under the stimulus act expires. Those cuts, she says, will range from $1 a month for those receiving minimum benefits to an average of around 5 percent for those receiving the maximum allowable amount.

"As an example, a family of four receiving the maximum benefit of $668 per month will receive a $36 reduction," Mayhew says. "In Maine, the average monthly benefit for a family of four is $351."

Republicans and Democrats at the State House continue to spar over the food stamp issue. Earlier this week, House GOP Leader Ken Fredette said one of his most common constituent complaints involves SNAP recipients who load up their grocery carts at the supermarket. But Troy Jackson, the Senate Democratic Leader, says Republicans and other critics should have a heart.

"People shouldn't be looking down their noses at those less fortunate, and as elected officials, we should be working hard to put those people to work somewhere at jobs that we don't have to worry about," Jackson says.

A U.S. Census report released this week concluded there are 47 million people living in poverty in the United States -- a statistic that is close to the highest level in 20 years.



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