If only LePage obsessed as much about hunger as he does about people who might be misusing food stamps

Gov. Paul LePage is “sick of seeing EBT cards in the hands of drug-dealers.” So he and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have found a magic trick to cure what ails our poor governor. They plan to reinstate an asset test requirement for an estimated 8,600 childless adults receiving SNAP benefits.

Besides the drug dealers to which LePage refers, the childless adult population includes senior citizens and the disabled, most of whom are not drug dealers or, as statistics show, are not using the program fraudulently. 

But with LePage and his social service policies, what he sees is what we get — even if there is little or no correlation between what he sees and what he decides to do. Somehow LePage is sure that reinstating the asset test is going to stop a minority of recipients from purchasing drugs with their EBT cards. How? Sleight of hand?

Unfortunately, magic tricks to make the governor feel better about what he is seeing with his very limited vision hurt the rest of us. In other words, his negative obsession with this vital program is bad for the poor, bad for anyone who may find his or herself suddenly financially compromised, bad for the staff at the Office of Family Independence at DHHS, and bad for our economy.

Would that LePage obsessed about hunger in our state as much as he obsesses about a relatively small percentage of recipients who may be misusing the SNAP program. New data show that Maine ranks 3rd in the country in terms of very low food security. Food security refers to the extent an individual can acquire basic daily nourishment. Maine is in the top three states for people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

Most other states are seeing an improvement in this area. Maine is not. I’d like to think the governor would see this ranking as alarming, as a call to action. I’d like to think a compassionate leader would be calling press conferences, raising awareness, and finding funding anywhere, anyhow to fight hunger. What have we heard from the LePage administration about this crisis?

Insert imaginary sound of crickets here.

Instead, in the wake of mill closings and regular news about layoffs and the cost of prescriptions for seniors, our governor wants to make sure anyone falling victim to these economic trends gives up every piece of what he or she has worked to earn before our state will help with food. And we are not even talking about state money here. SNAP benefits are 100 percent paid for by the federal government.

The state does pay half the costs to administer the program, which in fiscal year 2014 was just over $11 million.

What do we get for administering the SNAP program? In fiscal year 2013, we got $.4 billion in benefits for a monthly average of 249,119 people. Almost half a billion dollars. Further, as the USDA points out, “Every dollar in new SNAP benefits results in $1.80 in economic activity.”

Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters outside a press conference in Portland in June. (Troy Bennett | BDN)

Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters outside a press conference in Portland in June. (Troy Bennett | BDN)

Which means one of the many things our governor doesn’t see is that the SNAP program is not only a useful tool for fighting hunger, but it contributes to our economy, to keeping grocery stores open and staffed, etc. The last things we need in our state are more hunger and less economic activity.

And the last thing workers at the Office of Family Independence need are more requirements to mess up. In fiscal year 2013 the DHHS Fraud Investigations unit handled more state-agency-made errors than recipient-made errors. Every layer of regulations added means more room for potential errors. Making errors with the SNAP program means paying penalties to the federal government and paying salary hours to rectify the mistakes.

Freely translated, our minimal administration costs grow with each mistake, not lessen.

LePage’s plan increases the likelihood of mistakes rather than decreases it. When the public hearing on the plan is held in October, I hope some wise soul asks the administration for real numbers. Not only is it difficult to believe this plan will solve the problem of recipients buying drugs, it’s almost impossible to believe the reinstitution of the asset test will result in anything but increased administrative costs and decreased economic activity.

Oh, and increased food insecurity, too. It’s important to remember this program is about combating hunger, not making LePage feel better about what he thinks he sees.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.