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Farm Bill Provision Punches Hole in Maine LIHEAP Budget
03/17/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

State officials are being forced to do some financial juggling to ensure that thousands of Maine families continue to receive food stamps from the federal government. It's all due to recent efforts by Congress to try to reduce the amount of money being spent on the federal food stamp program - known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Tom Porter explains.

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Farm Bill Provision Tears Hole in Maine LIHEAP Bud Listen

The mammoth farm bill, which was approved earlier this year, contained a measure designed to block a method - some call it a loophole - used by a number of states, including Maine, linking food aid with heating assistance.

"I think the biggest change in the farm bill is reflected in the 'heat and eat' provision," says Beth Hamm, the director of the Office for Family Independence, within the state's Department of Health and Human Services.

The 'heat and eat' provision she's referring to enables families to automatically qualify for food stamps if they receive any money from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

The provision was set up as a way of easing the complex administrative burden of deciding who qualifies for SNAP.
No minimum amount is set. Consequently, the 14 states that use the "heat and eat" provision have typically been channelling a nominal amount of LIHEAP funding - say $1 a year - to some families who would otherwise not receive it because their heating costs are built into their rent.

This small amount of LIHEAP money qualifies these households to receive food aid. Beth Hamm from the Maine DHHS says the new farm bill has now set a minimum amount of $20 for LIHEAP recipients to receive from the state, "and if they don't provide it, then essentially what that means is a SNAP household - or in Maine we call it food supplement - could lose SNAP benefits because they're not getting the greater utility deduction."

Congress saw the measure as a way of curbing the increasing amount of money being spent on food stamps: Last year the cost of the SNAP program exceeded $80 billion. However many of the states have already made the decision to boost LIHEAP funding to meet the new threshold.

Maine is set to join that list, says Peter Merrill of the MaineHousing, the state's housing authority which overseas the LIHEAP program in Maine. He says the state is legally obliged to do so, thanks to a nearly 20-year-old statute.

"The state passed a law that, basically, encourages the Department of Health and Human Services to do everything they can to minimize the adverse impact on households if there were some change to be made."

Merrill says MaineHousing officials are currently working with the staff at the DHHS to make sure this happens. As he understands it, existing Maine law is intended to maximize federal benefits, "And so we've been worknig in the spirit of that," HE SAYS.

"These are people who are largely elders, seniors, or people with disabilities," says Chris Hastedt, public policy director at Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid provider which works with the state's low-income population.

Hastedt's talking about the 5,500 households affected by the 'heat and eat' provision. "Maine has a serious problem with hunger," she says. "We have the third-highest rate of very low food security in the country, and so anything we can do to improve people's access to food and reduce the problem of hunger we should be doing. And that's why this group of people really need this help."

In Maine, Hastedt says each qualifying household receives about $107 a month in SNAP benefits. That equates to more than $7 million per year in federal aid that can be leveraged by handing over about an extra $100,000 in LIHEAP money to the families that need it.

It also means, of course, that there'll be less LIHEAP money in the state's coffers for the other heating aid recipients. According to state officials, this will mean about 45,000 LIHEAP recipients getting $2.50 to $3 less every year.


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