Before this month, Maine's Paul LePage already had a reasonable claim to being America's worst governor. He was previously in the news for blaming Maine's heroin problem on "guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty" who "impregnate a young, white girl before they leave," and then vetoing a bill to provide lifesaving treatment to people having heroin overdoses.
His latest scheme is bad even by his standards. It started with LePage pushing a poorly designed pilot program to bar the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. "food stamps") benefits to purchase junk food. When the federal government rejected his application, he didn’t dust himself off and come up with a new proposal that wouldn’t run afoul of the Agriculture Department’s concerns. Instead, he’s holding the fate of tens of thousands of Mainers hostage, threatening to deny all of them any benefits unless the feds flip-flop and give in to his idea.
"The Obama Administration goes to great lengths to police the menus of K-12 cafeterias but looks the other way as billions of taxpayer dollars finance a steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew," LePage wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on June 17.
No state has ever withdrawn from the program before, so it’s not entirely clear what would happen if Maine did, but given that federal law does not allow the feds to directly administer it, the likeliest result seems to be that the program ends and 190,000 Maine residents lose benefits. LePage’s people deny this and say the feds could just step in, but it appears they’re mistaken on the actual law.
"The law is set up to presume that all states are opting in," Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said. "Theoretically the counterfactual is true, that they can deselect to participate. … This is a pretty irresponsible threat, the notion that a chief executive would threaten the food security of 190,000 people."
What LePage is so pissed about
LePage is reacting to the fact that the USDA rejected his proposal for a waiver to conduct a demonstration project banning SNAP beneficiaries from using their benefits to buy "candy and sugar-sweetened beverages."
It’s within USDA’s power to issue waivers like that, usually pursuant to states agreeing to rigorous, random assignment evaluations to see if the new policy is working. A recent pilot project in Massachusetts, for example, gave extra benefits to food stamp recipients who spend their benefits on fruit and vegetables, which proved effective at improving food choices:
That’s the carrot approach, but there hasn’t been a similar trial of the stick: not letting benefits be used to buy non-healthy foods at all. Unlike providing positive incentives, restrictions risk stigmatizing the poor while having no effect on unhealthy habits by the general population. Affluent people, after all, are more than welcome to spend their mortgage interest deductions on sugar-loaded artisanal cupcakes, and no one is seriously proposing to restrict how they use their rich-person welfare money.
And there’s no evidence that SNAP recipients eat any more junk food than non-recipients, after you adjust for demographic factors. A USDA analysis concluded that restricting usage would not actually reduce junk food consumption, since participants also use non-SNAP resources to buy food and could just use it to buy sugary beverages and the like.
All that being said, there’s at least an argument to be made that states should try restricting food stamps on a trial basis. The problem is that LePage’s proposed trial wouldn’t have demonstrated anything useful. As Andrea Gold of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) noted in her letter rejecting the pilot proposal, Maine wanted to ban usage of SNAP benefits for sweetened beverages and candy statewide. That means there would be no control group to compare against and see if the restriction actually made a difference.
Worse still, the trial proposed measuring if purchases changed by asking recipients to self-report whether or not they changed; basically, it'd depend on Mainers accurately recalling purchases from six months ago. That would bias the data tremendously.
So FNS rejected the proposed trial. LePage could have responded with a well-designed proposal for a randomized controlled study that actually answered the question of if restricting food stamp usage improved health. He did not. Instead, he threatened to cut everyone off from food stamps.
Ironically, that will almost certainly increase obesity. A study by Berkeley’s Hilary Hoynes, Northwestern’s Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Columbia’s Douglas Almond found that children who were on food stamps were significantly less likely to be obese or have heart disease as adults:
It stands to reason that reducing the number of children getting food stamps could have the opposite impact in the long run.
Even if LePage fails, thousands have been cut off food stamps already
LePage’s rationale for taking away food stamps is uniquely petty, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Just last year, he canceled benefits for thousands by reimposing a time limit on benefits for childless adults who don't work or work part time. The federal government lets states waive the time limit in regions with high unemployment, which most states choose to do. It's free money. But LePage reimposed it despite Maine having counties with high unemployment rates.
As unemployment rates fall, that time limit — one of the cruelest provisions of the 1996 welfare reform law — has been coming back across the country. CBPP estimates that at least 500,000 and as many as 1 million people could see benefits cut off due to lower unemployment triggering the return of the time limit in various areas this year.
There’s no way to avoid that without Congress repealing the time limit, and as Congress has actually cut benefits in recent years it’s hard to see that happening. But given the important role SNAP plays as the safety net of last resort for poor individuals and families who can’t find consistent work in the labor market, the case for expanding benefits is very strong, and the current trend toward decreased access will wind up increasing hunger and harming children over their whole life spans.