What do we owe our fellow citizens, and what do they owe us?

Jim Geraghty

The New York Times suits up for another “heartless, cruel Republican governors slash food stamps” story, but once again when you read to the end of the story, the picture painted in those opening paragraphs doesn’t seem so dire.

Last year, the administration of Gov. Paul R. LePage, a Republican, decided to reimpose a three-month limit (out of every three-year period) on food stamps for a group often known as Abawds — able-bodied adults without minor dependents — unless they work 20 hours per week, take state job-training courses or volunteer for about six hours per week. Maine, like other states, makes some exceptions.

The number of Abawds receiving food stamps in Maine has dropped nearly 80 percent since the rule kicked in, to 2,530 from about 12,000. This time limit is an old one, written into the 1996 federal welfare law. But, during the recession, most states took advantage of a provision that allows them to waive it when unemployment is persistently high, which meant poor adults could stay on the program regardless of their work status.

Maine is one of eight states that qualified for waivers in 2015 but decided to use them only in parts of the state or not at all. And, as the economy improves, more states will cease to qualify for the waivers, even if they want them. The Agriculture Department estimates that 23 states will cease to qualify for statewide waivers in the 2016 fiscal year.

“It means life gets tougher for those childless adults who face barriers already getting back into work,” said Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

See that last little bit at the bottom? Volunteer for about six hours a week. Six hours! That’s less than an hour a day! And remember, the people we’re talking about don’t have kids and don’t have jobs.

And remember, this is after the first three months on the program. So the state of Maine is saying, “If you sign up for food stamps, we will give them for you for three months with no requirements; after that, you have to work 20 hours per week, take state job-training courses, or volunteer for about six hours per week.”

How is that a draconian, unfair, or insufficiently sympathetic rule?