State says it is pursuing transition to work for the mentally ill

People who are able-bodied but have a psychological condition such as depression will need to work, volunteer or undergo job training for at least 20 hours a week to continue receiving benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps, Mary Mayhew, the commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said last week.

This came on Wednesday, July 23, the same day that DHHS released a statement that said all SNAP recipients between the ages of 18 and 49, who have no dependents living with them and are not pregnant or physically disabled, will have to comply with a federal work participation requirement or they will no longer receive food subsidizes as of Oct. 1.

In June, 13,039 individuals in Oxford County received SNAP benefits, according to John A. Martins, director of public and employee communications for the Maine DHHS. The department has identified 599 people in Oxford County who will need to fulfill the work program, Martins said by e-mail Tuesday, adding that their average benefit amounts to $127 per month. That includes people with mental health issues, he reiterated.

“The federal policy on exemptions speaks to written proof from a physician that a person is medically unfit to work. We have seen that people with mental illness are healthier and use far less services when they are working and we are pursuing the transition to work and volunteer services for persons with mental illness,” Martins said by email.

Though chronic depression has long been deemed a mental illness that often renders one unable to work, Mayhew said depressed people become less depressed once they are put to work. She said the state will work with a patient – first getting her out of bed, then getting her out shopping, then helping her apply for jobs—until she is employed. There have been stories in which people who were considered unemployable were happier once they were employed at places such as Walmart, Mayhew said last week.

The state had been waiving the SNAP work requirement for the last five years because of its high unemployment rate. But with recent news that the statewide unemployment rate dropped from 9.7-percent in February 2010 to 5.5-percent last June (or 6.5-percent in Oxford County), the state has decided to not seek the waiver.

Mayhew said her department’s mission is to prioritize spending in Maine. She’d rather see her department’s budget help the elderly and chronically physically ill than feed able-bodied residents, who she’d like to help become employed.

[We want] to support them becoming more self-sufficient to help them and their families,” Mayhew told the Advertiser Democrat on July 23. “I want them to be able to do case management. … I want to be supporting that.”

Gov. Paul LePage, who appointed Mayhew commissioner, said in his weekly message on July 23 that the state shouldn’t be giving handouts.

I don’t believe that handing money to someone will lift them out of poverty. I do believe in giving them the tools and the knowledge to succeed at their job,” he said. “If you hand someone money who hasn’t worked for it, nine times out of 10, it’s going to be spent unwisely.”

Mayhew has a plan in place to bring the state Department of Labor together with the DHHS to help streamline services for residents who need them, she said, adding that the work requirement is intended to create “pathways” to pull people out of poverty.

We want to help support them becoming more sufficient. To help them and their families,” she said.

About 12,000 people in the program across the state of Maine are considered able-bodied according to federal rules, the DHHS press release said, adding that about $15 million a year are spent on their SNAP benefits. LePage, however, says that he expects this work requirement to affect about 11,000 Mainers.