State Republicans want work requirements for those receiving public assistance
Apr. 7—AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers argued Friday for restoring work requirements for people who seek welfare benefits such as food stamps, MaineCare and General Assistance.
They say expansion of the state's welfare safety net has created a disincentive for able-bodied adults to return to the workforce, which is contributing to a labor shortage and driving up state and local aid budgets.
But opponents countered that the benefits are not proven to dissuade people from working and help prepare recipients to return to work by meeting basic needs for food and health care.
And Republicans lack the numbers to push through welfare reforms like those passed during former Gov. Paul LePage's two terms. LePage, a Republican, ended the state's practice of seeking annual federal waivers to allow some able-bodied adults to receive food stamps without fulfilling work requirements. He also blocked the voter-approved expansion of the state's Medicaid program, among other efforts to limit or trim assistance programs.
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, introduced four bills on behalf of himself and Republican Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart that he said would create an incentive for able-bodied adults to return to the workforce and help businesses fill open positions. He said Maine's welfare programs are depressing the state's workforce participation, which is below 60% and the lowest in New England.
"For those who are able-bodied and capable of work, welfare should be a safety net and not a hammock," Brakey told the Health and Human Services Committee. "It's not good for society or the human spirit for those with the capacity to contribute to grow permanently dependent on taxpayer-funded handouts with no expectation of taking steps to improve your lot in life."
Opponents such as Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group, said that's not the case. They say that the state's aging population is driving the worker shortage, not overly generous welfare benefits.
Maine Equal Justice advocate Alex Carter said the bills are "founded on the same false premise — that food, health care, and housing are somehow barriers to work."
"Decades of research have shown, and those in poverty understand, that the very opposite is true," Carter said. "Adequate nutrition, good health, and stable housing are the necessary foundation for consistent participation in our workforce."
Brakey's bill, L.D. 784, would codify LePage-era requirements that able-bodied adults between 18 and 50 with no dependents would need to work part-time, volunteer or participate in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits from the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), MaineCare or municipal General Assistance for more than three months.
Amy Regan Gallant, vice president of public policy and research at the Good Shepherd Food Bank, said adding barriers to SNAP benefits would be a mistake that would only add to food insecurity and increase demand at local food pantries.
"Pantries are supporting more people in need right now than during the height of the pandemic," Gallant said. "These bills will not increase employment. (They) will decrease benefits. People who lose benefits will turn to the emergency food network."
Brakey also introduced two bills sponsored by Stewart: L.D. 778 would prohibit the Maine Department of Health and Human Services from seeking federal waivers for work requirements and L.D. 1194 would add work requirements to the state's Medicaid program, MaineCare.
In written testimony, Stewart said adding work requirements to MaineCare "represents a modest approach" to rein in costs, which he said now consume a third of the state budget — up from a quarter of the budget over the last 18 years.
"Medicaid in Maine is out of control and our economy is out of workers," Stewart said. "This bill ... will help solve both problems."
While the bills were framed as helping businesses address existing workforce shortages, no businesses or business groups testified in support.
The only support came from the Opportunities Solutions Project, a nonprofit group headed by former LePage staffer Tarren Bragdon that is affiliated with the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability. Bragdon is a former state representative and founder of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which is now the Maine Policy Institute.
"Honestly this should be pretty common sense, like the food stamp requirement," said Scott Centorino, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability and a visiting fellow for the Opportunity Solutions Project.
In his final days in office, LePage sought to add work requirements to MaineCare. His proposal was approved by the administration of former President Donald Trump, but reversed by Gov. Janet Mills only months before the pandemic.
At the time, Mills cited "Maine's low unemployment rate, its widely dispersed population and our lowest per capita income in New England."
The Biden administration later withdrew waivers allowing states to add work requirements to Medicaid programs.