The new faces of need in Maine

Posted Wednesday, November 30, 2011 in News

The new faces of need in Maine

by Gina Hamilton

At a time when DHHS is hemorrhaging funds, and the governor wants to throw more roadblocks in the way of getting federal and state welfare assistance, those in need are slowly morphing from the traditionally poor to the former middle class.

Barbara Van Burgle, director of the Office for Family Independence, said that a variety of factors are causing the change. "There are a lot of families in which one person is working but has accepted a job that pays far less than the job he or she had before," she said. "Forty-five percent of recipients have one person in the family working, but making so little that they are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program."

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) used to be called the food stamp program. The average monthly benefit per person is $129.17. The federal government pays for all of the benefits and half of the cost of administering the program. Any person with income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level is eligible. In a poor state like Maine, far too many people qualify, because wages are low.

The federal poverty level is $10,890 a year for an individual and $22,350 for a family of four. An individual qualifies for SNAP if he earns $20,146 or less, while a family of four qualifies if they collectively earn $41,347. That means that many on unemployment, and even many who are working one or even two jobs, qualify for assistance.

SNAP pays for food, as well as seeds and food-bearing plants, such as tomato plants. It does not cover items such as cigarettes, alcohol, or paper goods.

A family in Topsham, who asked to have their names changed for this story, said that while food assistance helps, it is not enough.

"My family of four is homeless," Paul said. "We lost our rental housing when my wife had to stop working, and then I lost my job in construction last summer, and unemployment wasn't enough to pay the rent. We put our belongings into storage, but weren't able to keep paying the storage fees, so we've lost almost everything. Now we're staying in a friend's basement, sleeping on a couple of old sofa beds, and using our food stamps to help out his struggling household. None of us want a handout ... we just want a job."

Paul's friend, Steve, is also unemployed, though his wife is working and making enough ... for now ... to cover their basic bills. However, there are no extras for either household, and Christmas is coming.

Paul's wife, Elaine, is pregnant with their third child. They are all able to receive MaineCare, but she has been unsuccessful so far in finding a doctor who will take her high-risk pregnancy on because of the low rate MaineCare pays. She says that when she goes into labor, she is likely to go to an emergency room, where they will have to accept her. She's expecting to give birth in early February, and lost all her baby gear when they couldn't pay the storage fees on their unit. She's trying to get help through Freecycle, a local free exchange group operating in the midcoast.

The family said that before the recession, they were earning nearly $60,000 per year — comfortably middle class. 

"It really ticks me off when I hear [Gov. Paul] LePage say things like, 'Just get a job'," Paul said. "Doesn't he realize that if there were jobs out there that could support our family, I'd have been out there doing them a long time ago? Does he really think that I want to see my wife and girls living in somebody else's basement? Doesn't he know that we all see assistance as a last resort, not a first choice?

"All we are asking for is a little dignity. LePage can't fix the economy, but he can at least acknowledge that most of us aren't trying to game the system. I personally find that very insulting."

Paul and Elaine's family are not alone. The latest statistics indicate there were over 248,000 Mainers — up 7.5 percent from a year ago — benefiting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That is nearly 128,000 Maine households.

Paul and Elaine are living in a friend's basement because while they qualify for Section 8 and public housing, there is a two-year waiting list (or longer) in the midcoast. There are emergency family shelters, but they are nearly always full. They feel fortunate to have good friends who are willing to give up their own privacy to help them. And they still haven't wrapped their heads around the idea that they are "poor."

"It's a temporary thing," Elaine says. "We'll get back on our feet. We shouldn't be taking up [Section 8] housing that people who really need it should be living in. I think we'll be okay, once the economy recovers and after I can go back to work."

Still, she acknowledges feeling ashamed when she and the girls go to the food bank, or when they visit the clothing bank to get clothes for the quickly-growing little girls and maternity items for her. And she feels terrible when she can't do simple things with their kids that used to be regular events.

"My four-year-old wanted to go to McDonald's for her birthday last month," Elaine said. "That's all she wanted ... a Happy Meal and a little time in the playground. I told her we could go to McDonald's to play for a while, but that we had to come home for dinner ... I was planning to make hamburgers and french fries, make it like Happy Meals." Her voice broke. "But then Paul went up to the counter and talked to the manager, who brought both girls a Happy Meal on the house. I was so grateful ... it was such a little thing, and we just couldn't afford to do it." The family's unemployment funds are going to keep up with the payments on Paul's truck and Elaine's car, which they will need to resume their jobs, and car and life insurance, as well as paying a small amount of rent to their friends.

Elaine said her parents in Oklahoma sent gifts for her daughter's birthday, and are already assembling a box of toys for Christmas from the girls' lists. "It's so difficult to rely on relatives for things we used to be able to do ourselves, no problem."

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