Mills Administration Pursues Changes to General Assistance Program, Aligning Rules with Intent of Law and Preparing Newly-Arrived Individuals to Enter the Workforce and Strengthen Maine’s Economy

July 18, 2019

Governor Janet Mills announced today that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is pursuing changes to the eligibility rules for General Assistance to ensure that the program includes people who are intended to receive assistance under the law. The change comes after several months of review by the Mills Administration of the program’s eligibility requirements and their alignment with a 2015 law. The Administration ultimately concluded that the current rules are not fully in line with the legislative intent and thus changed them. Doing so will also prepare those seeking asylum to enter the workforce and strengthen Maine’s economy at a time when workers are desperately needed.

Governor Mills wrote in a soon-to-be published Portland Press Herald op-ed, in part:

“This workforce shortage is one of the most serious long-term issues facing our state, and state government is working on its first long-term economic development plan in decades and engaging people of all ages and abilities to stay in Maine and join or rejoin the workforce. There is one group of people who are willing to work if we are willing to have them.

“Nearly all are families with children, people who have walked thousands of miles and braved war and brutal weather to get here, people who want to work, want to raise their families, and want to live free, they are waiting here in Maine, at our doorstep. They are people with skills, education and ability, people with a proven work ethic and tremendous drive – and they are just waiting for the chance to work.

“Since taking office I have been asked to review and revise the rule under this part of the General Assistance law. After giving it much thought, my Department of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the Attorney General’s Office, has reformulated the rule to comport with the intent of the law, encouraging individuals to pursue a lawful process of asylum in the courts or with the federal immigration service, and, at the same time, providing our towns, cities and property owners the ability to house families while they wait for their paperwork from the federal government.

“The amended rule includes common-sense requirements that the individuals provide proof of their eligibility status. Assistance is time-limited and, as with all General Assistance benefits, they must reapply – and demonstrate need – every month. Help does not come in the form of cash, but in vouchers used to purchase basic items like food, medications, housing, and other essential services from select vendors. This amended rule assists cash-strapped municipalities dealing with an unexpected influx of people, and it motivates all families who are lawfully present in our state to complete every step on the path to asylum and, hopefully, on the path to citizenship.

“We who were born and raised in Maine sometimes make fun of ‘people from away,’ while we complain that our state is getting older and that it is increasingly difficult to do business here. Let’s put an end to the complaints, put aside the politics, and do the logical thing – welcome a workforce that is right on our doorstep and put them on the path to employment to build and strengthen our economy.”

Helping people to meet their basic needs, including food, housing, and medical care, provides them with the necessary stability to pursue and obtain employment. The Maine Chamber of Commerce is a leading champion for welcoming new Mainers and incorporating them into the workforce to contribute to our economy:

“We know the challenge facing us: a serious workforce shortage that is impacting nearly every sector of our economy. But we also know the solution: more people and more workers, especially skilled ones,” said Dana Connors, President of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “Newly-arrived people, including those seeking asylum, are a part of the answer to this problem, and I applaud the Governor’s work to ensure that they have the resources needed to be on a path to employment. The result in the long-run will be more help for Maine businesses and a stronger economy – what we need.”

In 2015, the Legislature amended the Municipal General Assistance statute (22 M.R.S. § 4301 et seq.) to clarify that certain people would be eligible for the program if they were either “lawfully present in the United States” or “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.”

The terms “lawfully present” and “pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief” were not defined in the statute. In April 2016, the prior administration adopted regulations that defined those terms extremely narrowly – in some cases, excluding people considered lawfully present under federal law such as victims of human trafficking. The rule also required that those seeking asylum fully complete and submit an asylum application to federal authorities in order to qualify for General Assistance. However, this runs counter to the Legislature’s intent to restore General Assistance eligibility for those pursing a lawful process to seek asylum, a complex process that begins before filing a formal application. In response, the sponsor of the legislative language, Republican Senator Amy Volk, wrote in a Portland Press Herald op-ed at the time, “Unfortunately, the rules that are currently being proposed by the DHHS contradict the intent of that bill, which became law earlier this year.”

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is amending these definitions through an emergency rule change, allowing asylum seekers who provide proof that they are taking “reasonable good faith steps” to apply for immigration relief to qualify for General Assistance.

“These changes square Maine’s rules with federal law and the intent of the Legislature, allowing municipalities to provide time-limited assistance to lawfully present people to help them on the path toward employment,” said Commissioner of DHHS Jeanne Lambrew.

Maine law requires that municipalities offer General Assistance to people who meet income requirements. General Assistance is funded through communities, with the Department reimbursing 70 percent of municipalities’ costs. General Assistance can be used for basic necessities including food, housing and electricity and medical expenses. Assistance is granted to eligible individuals for a 30-day period, and a new application is required on a monthly basis for ongoing assistance. Individuals who qualify as non-citizens may receive assistance for up to 24 months. Other qualifying criteria for General Assistance, including income limits, still apply. Assistance is not provided directly to eligible individuals, but rather issued in the form of vouchers used to pay vendors who have provided goods and services to eligible individuals.

Under the emergency rulemaking process, the rules submitted by DHHS take effect immediately. DHHS will then submit proposed rules on a non-emergency basis, which will include a public comment period.

The complete text of the soon to be published op-ed is as follows:


“Help Wanted!” “Maine Businesses Facing Critical Work Shortage!” “Maine’s Population Oldest in the Country!” “Closed Due to Lack of Help!”

These signs and headlines are not uncommon, as employers from Kittery to Madawaska and Fryeburg to Eastport are telling us they are desperate for workers and as our young people leave the state for opportunities elsewhere. The impacts are widespread, from construction contractors struggling to find workers to pave roads to nonprofits struggling to find workers to staff group homes and reduce waitlists for critical services.

This workforce shortage is one of the most serious long-term issues facing our state, and state government is working on its first long-term economic development plan in decades and engaging people of all ages and abilities to stay in Maine and join or rejoin the workforce.

There is one group of people who are willing to work if we are willing to have them. Nearly all are families with children, people who have walked thousands of miles and braved war and brutal weather to get here, people who want to work, want to raise their families, and want to live free, they are waiting here in Maine, at our doorstep. They are victims of domestic violence, those exposed to human trafficking, those who fought terrorism in their country of origin, those who have protected freedom, those who lost children, children who lost parents. They are people with skills, education and ability, people with a proven work ethic and tremendous drive – and they are just waiting for the chance to work.

Four years ago, Republican State Senator Amy Volk recognized this opportunity by proposing legislative language which would allow this unique population — people seeking asylum in our state — to feed, house and clothe their families before they are allowed to become employed under federal law. It passed the Republican-controlled Senate (29-5) and it became law.

In the rulemaking process, however, the previous administration narrowly construed the law and prevented nearly all of these people from accessing emergency assistance — food and shelter — during the application process and required waiting period. Senator Volk made the point at the time that the administration’s interpretation was inconsistent with the law.

Since taking office I have been asked to review and revise the rule under this part of the General Assistance law. After giving it much thought, my Department of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the Attorney General’s Office, has reformulated the rule to comport with the intent of the law, encouraging individuals to pursue a lawful process of asylum in the courts or with the federal immigration service, and, at the same time, providing our towns, cities and property owners the ability to house families while they wait for their paperwork from the federal government.

The amended rule includes common-sense requirements that the individuals provide proof of their legal status. Assistance is time-limited and, as with all General Assistance benefits, they must reapply – and demonstrate need – every month. Help does not come in the form of cash, but in vouchers used to purchase basic items like food, medications, housing, and other essential services from select vendors.

This amended rule assists cash-strapped municipalities dealing with an unexpected influx of people, and it motivates all families who are lawfully present in our state to complete every step on the path to asylum and, hopefully, on the path to citizenship.

We who were born and raised in Maine sometimes make fun of “people from away,” while we complain that our state is getting older and that it is increasingly difficult to do business here.

Let’s put an end to the complaints, put aside the politics, and do the logical thing – welcome a workforce that is right on our doorstep and put them on the path to employment to build and strengthen our economy.

Headlines in the coming years should read: “Maine Businesses Thrive With A Growing Workforce!”