The Maine Department of Health and Human Services says it intends to implement a new $5,000 asset test on low-income Mainers receiving food vouchers through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The proposed rule, which would apply to childless people who are applying or re-applying for the program formerly known as “food stamps,” would require applicants to disclose all assets, such as bank accounts, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, RVs, boats, jet skis, campers, motorcycles, second homes or properties, and second passenger vehicles. 

Applicants with assets over $5,000 in value will be deemed ineligible for food assistance under the rule change. The proposal is expected to impact 8,600 food stamps recipients out of the 200,000 Mainers who currently receive the benefit. A hundred percent of SNAP benefits come from the federal government. The average monthly SNAP benefit in Maine is about $116 per month for an individual and $218 for a household. 

In a statement, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew claimed that people are “using welfare as a first line of defense to keep their boats and motorcycles rather than using welfare as a safety net.” 

However, at a public hearing on the proposal last week, low-income advocates said asset tests will exacerbate Maine’s hunger problem, cost more to oversee, and discourage people from saving to get off welfare and achieve independence. Eloise Vitelli of the nonprofit New Ventures (formerly Women, Work and Community) argued that the policy discourages people from saving for necessities like replacing a broken-down car or paying for dental work or educational expenses. She said it would likely hurt seniors on fixed incomes, students, rural residents, veterans, people with disabilities and others who find themselves facing the loss of a job, a divorce or a sudden illness. 

The USDA recently reported that Maine leads the country in cutting food assistance to the poor and is now third in the country for having the most people experiencing multiple instances of hunger in a month. Feeding America has predicted that there will be a 50-percent increase in seniors facing hunger in Maine by 2025. AARP noted in testimony at the hearing that the number of Maine seniors on SNAP has increased by 32 percent in the past five years. 

Opponents of the asset-test proposal also pointed out that it will likely pose a significant administrative burden for DHHS caseworkers. Maine is one of 37 states that has abolished the asset test over the past several years because the program was prone to errors that resulted in federal penalties. In addition, data from other states reveals very low denials due to asset tests. According to the USDA, the average SNAP-recipient household has only $333 in the bank. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported that less than one percent of SNAP cases were closed in Idaho and Michigan after they reinstated asset tests. 

Opponents also argue that the additional time spent by DHHS caseworkers to check and verify assets will delay food assistance to many eligible applicants. A 73-year-old SNAP recipient, Virginia Durr of Bridgton, testified that DHHS regulations are already cumbersome enough.

“For my $16 in food stamps I spend about four hours talking to robots and people who put me on different menus to talk to other people to talk to other people to talk to other people . . .,” said Durr. 

Despite strong opposition to the rule changes at last week’s hearing, DHHS spokesman David Sorensen told media outlets that the department intends to imple-ment the rules in the coming weeks no matter what. Opponents insist that the LePage administration is violating state law by its vowing to ignore the dissenting views and analyses on the rule changes presented at the public hearing. 

During the hearing, Sorensen mocked opponents as “welfare lobbyists” who express concern about the administrative burden of asset tests, yet not about the adminstrative burden of expanding Medicaid. 

In her testimony, Durr said the problem of poverty in Maine will get worse as the safety net is further eroded. 

She said, “If we who live in poverty can’t make a difference through reform, through nonviolence, testimony, writing letters and dissent, our democracy itself is on the brink of destruction. . . . This begins with a basic requirement for a sustainable life. This involves the ability to buy nutritious food at affordable prices and to require this basic human right to live without worry that our basic rights to privacy, dignity, respect and justice is subject to the kind of scrutiny of which the more wealthy have become increasingly exempt.”