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Need food? Maine’s governor wants you to work for it

Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters shortly after the Maine House and Senate both voted to override his veto of the state budget in this June 2013 photo. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

The state of Maine plans to reinstate work requirements for food stamp recipients, part of a broad effort by Republican Gov. Paul LePage (R) to reform what he has characterized as the state’s unhealthy reliance on welfare.

Maine has for years taken advantage of a federal waiver of work requirements for food stamp recipients, offered as states were plagued by high unemployment during and after the Great Recession. But now the state is scheduled to put the requirements back in place  Oct. 1. The policy change would affect an estimated 12,000 residents who collect roughly $15 million in benefits, paid for by the federal government.

“People who are in need deserve a hand up, but we should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout,’’ LePage said in a statement. “We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work. We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”

LePage has set his sights on broad welfare reform, arguing in his state of the state speech that “there is no excuse for able-bodied adults to spend a lifetime on welfare at the expense of hard-working, struggling Mainers.” This spring, he introduced a four-bill package aimed at reducing fraud in welfare payouts and encouraging job-seeking.

Under the new policy announced  Wednesday, work-capable adults would be limited to three months of food stamp benefits over a three-year period unless they work a minimum of 20 hours a week, volunteer a certain set of hours for a community agency, or participate in a state skills-training program.

The three-month limit was introduced in the 1996 federal welfare reform law, which made waivers available for areas of high unemployment — where, presumably, the difficulty in gaining employment may be attributable to larger economic patterns. More than forty states had such waivers at some point in the past several years, with 32 states implementing it statewide and 10 others implementing it in certain regions during the 2014 fiscal year. Maine has qualified and implemented the waiver since 2010.

In June, roughly 231,000 people received roughly $27.2 million in benefits in Maine. The state had an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent in June, ranking it 19th in the country.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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