JULY 18, 2019 NOTICE: Emergency GA Rule expands eligibility to people with a Notice to Appear in immigration court who are planning to seek asylum. We will update this article as we have more information. Until then, ILAP (Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project) has posted a helpful advisory about this new rule in several languages. View ILAP's advisory on the July, 2019 Emergency GA Rule.
About This Material
This is a general summary of Maine's General Assistance laws as of September 2017. These laws may change from time to time.
As a general summary, this material is designed to answer only some basic questions about General Assistance
If you are in need of General Assistance and have been denied, seek legal help.
Who To Call For Help
If you need help with a General Assistance problem, you can call:
- Pine Tree Legal provides legal help to people with General Assistance problems. Pine Tree lawyers and paralegals can look at your case and help figure if you have been unfairly denied and may also help you with your Fair Hearing and appeals. You only have 5 business days to appeal. If you can't reach us in time, bring a note to the town saying you want to appeal. Date it, and keep a copy for yourself.
- If you are unfairly denied General Assistance you can also call the Department at 1-800-442-6003 (TTY: Maine relay 711) and talk to the people who supervise how towns run their General Assistance programs. They may get involved to make the towns pay the General Assistance you need.
What Is General Assistance?
General assistance (called GA after this) is a program run by every town to help people who don't have enough money to pay their necessary expenses.
You may be eligible if you don't have enough money for food, medicine, rent, heat, electricity, or other necessary things.
Each town has rules about who can have this money. You have the right to read the rules in the town office.
How to apply
Who can apply?
Anyone can go to the town office and fill out an application. You will be asked to write down your income, to tell what cash you have, and to give a list of all your expenses, such as rent, heating fuel, electricity, food and other things you must pay for. You will also be asked if you have any cash, bank accounts, cars, or other things of value. Make sure you apply for everything you need, and that your application is complete before you sign it.
In an emergency, you can apply by phone.
Where do I apply?
You should apply at the town office where you live. If you are homeless, you should apply at the town office where you want to live. If there is no town office, ask the town clerk or a selectperson. In certain cases, you may be able to apply over the phone.
Do I have to be a resident?
You are a resident of the town you are in, if you plan to live there. You cannot be turned down for GA because the town says you are not a resident. For example, if you get evicted from an apartment and have not found a new one yet, apply in the town where you are or where you are planning to move.
What information will I need when I apply?
Proof of all income for the last 30 days, and what you expect to get in the next 30 days.
- You should make a list of all your household expenses, such as: rent or mortgage, electricity, heating fuel (oil, wood, gas), cooking gas, water and sewer charges, telephone, food\school lunches, clothing, medical, transportation, taxes, diapers and laundry.
- You should also take proof of all your monthly household income, such as: pay stubs, bank books, checking statements, child support, worker's compensation, TANF, SSI, Social Security, payments from boarders, unemployment checks and self-employment income. Money you receive from Maine Revenue Services for rent or property tax refund will be counted as income unless you can document that it was used for basic necessities. (This is now called the Property Tax Fairness Credit; formerly the Circuit Breaker program.)
Try to bring papers that will help show what the income from everyone in your household is. Some income cannot be counted, but you should tell the town what all your income is anyway. The town can count income and money that you will receive in the 30 days after you apply. They may also look at last month's income and expenses to see if they can count any money you received, and to estimate what your income will be this month.
When can I apply?
The town must have reasonable hours for taking applications.
You can apply for GA each month. If you are getting GA, you can reapply at the end of your month of eligibility. If you want to continue getting GA, you must re-apply each month. Each time you apply, the town will have to decide whether or not you are eligible at that time.
What about emergencies?
If you run out of heating oil or food or something else you really need, the town must take an application at once. Look for a sign on the town office door that will tell you how to apply in an emergency. You can also call the town clerk, a selectperson or the local police and ask how you can apply. You may be able to get GA in an emergency, even though you are not usually eligible.
Is the information I give on my application kept secret?
Yes. In general, the town must keep all the information you give them secret unless you allow them to tell other people. The town will need to know who to pay your GA vouchers to, such as your landlord. The town may also need to you to give permission for them to contact people who can verify your income and other necessary information. Note that Maine DHHS keeps a data base that towns will be able to access, to find out about what income you may be getting from the state.
The town should tell you who they will contact. Anyone who is contacted can't tell others that the town has called them about your GA application.
Your application must be taken in private and the person who takes your application must treat you with respect. They should not embarrass you for asking for help. You can ask the town to let someone be with you while you apply, like a friend or relative or counselor.
Are You Eligible?
What if this is my first application?
The eligibility conditions are different for people who are applying for GA for the first time. There is more information about some of these other eligibility conditions below.
If you are applying for GA for the first time, you may be eligible if you don't have enough money to pay for basic necessities.
After you have applied for GA, even once, anywhere in the state, there are more rules you have to follow to get help again. They are more complicated, but this is a summary:
If I own a home or a car, can I still get help if I need it?
Yes. If you can't pay your basic expenses, you can get help even if you own a home or a car. Some towns set a limit on the value of the car, but if you need it to get places like work, school or the doctor, you can still own a car and get assistance.
If you own things which could be turned into cash, a town may ask you to sell some things (such as second cars, snowmobiles, and other things that are not necessities) in order to continue getting GA. Wait until you are told you should sell these things. If the town tells you to sell something, they cannot deny you GA as long as you are really trying to sell it.
If I Get Food Supplements, TANF, Social Security, Veterans Benefits, Unemployment Insurance or Worker's Compensation, can I still get GA?
Maybe. Apply anyway. If your income is less than your necessary expenses and the program's income maximum, you should be considered.
Can the town make me apply for other programs?
Yes. The town can tell you that you need to apply for things like TANF, Food Supplements, HEAP, SSI, Social Security Disability, and other public programs. The town can also say that you have to get medical treatment or go to rehabilitation that is free, or try to get child support you are entitled to. These are called "potential resources."
The town has to tell you in writing what to apply for, and give you at least seven days to apply for it. You can get GA while you are waiting for the resource, if you show that you applied.
The town can tell you about local charities that may help you out, but they cannot require you to go to a charity like a food bank or the Salvation Army.
The town can also contact your spouse if you are married, even if you are separated, to see if you should be getting help from your spouse.
If you are under 25, the town may see if your parents can house you. If they can't (or if you have "good cause" for not wanting to live with your parents), the town may not deny you GA. But it may bill your parents, to pay the town back the money it has spent on GA for you. If the town tries to force your parents to pay back the money, it can only get the amount of GA that it gave you over the last 12 months. Also, the town can require you to use your parents as a "potential resource." (see above) So, to continue getting help after the first time, you may have to document why you cannot get help from them.
If you are afraid of your spouse or your parents, you should tell the town not to contact them, and that you are afraid.
Can I get GA even if I am working?
Maybe. If your income is less than your necessary expenses and the program's income maximum, you should be considered.
If I am able to work but don't have a job, can I get GA?
Yes, but you may have to look for work and sign up at your local Maine Job Service office. Some towns may make you work for the town. This is called workfare. The town can also say you must go to school, or to get medical help that is free, or go to a rehabilitation program.
What is workfare?
Some towns require some people to do workfare for the GA their household gets. Here are some rules:
- If you need emergency GA (such as for food), you must be allowed to get the GA before you do workfare.
- The town must give you GA that at least equals the minimum wage.
- Workfare cannot interfere with a real job or job interview.
- The town must pay any expenses you incur to do your workfare.
- If you can't get to the workfare job site, the town should help you get there.
- You must be treated with respect on your workfare job. You cannot be subjected to ridicule or harassment or be made to do things you cannot safely do.
- Some people do not have to do workfare. These are people who can show that they have health problems or must take care of young children full time. In most towns, people who have full-time jobs don't have to do workfare. In most towns, people with part-time jobs don't have to work more than 40 hours per week, counting both their workfare hours and their job hours. Workfare cannot interfere with your job.
- If you are a student working towards your high school diploma or GED, or enrolled in an approved training program such as ASPIRE, JTPA or STAR, your workfare cannot interfere with your school or training.
- You can lose your GA benefits for 120 days if you don't finish your workfare job. You may be excused from workfare for good reasons, like if you are sick or have a doctor's appointment or a job interview. The law also gives you one chance to make up workfare that you missed. You should be able to become eligible for GA again if you later complete your workfare job. If the town won't let you finish your workfare, call Pine Tree Legal or DHHS at 1-800-442-6003 (TTY: 287-6948).
What happens if I quit or refuse a job?
You can lose your benefits for up to 120 days if you quit or refuse a job, unless there is good reason. Good reasons include: sexual harassment, unfair wages, sickness, disability, child care problems and not having a way to get to work.
The 120 day disqualification starts from the time you lost your job, or turned one down.
If you get a job later on, you should be allowed to apply again.
Can I get GA if I am fired?
If you get fired because of your own misconduct, you can be denied GA. If you were laid off or fired for other reasons, they can't deny you because you lost your job.
Can the town refuse GA to everyone in the family if one family member won't do what is required?
No. For, example, if one family member refuses to work for the town, only that person can be denied help. The other family members will get help if they need it. The maximum amount of the benefit is reduced, based on a “pro rata” formula. (For example, if one person in a 4 person household is disqualified, then the household may qualify for a ¾ portion of the total household benefit.)
What about roommates?
If you share your house or apartment with friends but do not share your money with them, you can ask the town not to count their income and expenses in your budget. For example, if you have one roommate, you would be able to apply for one half of the rent, electricity, fuel, etc.
When a roommate applies separately, any benefit amount will be calculated as a portion of the maximum benefit, based on how many people are living in the housing unit. In other words, the town will assume that, if you have a roommate, you are "pooling" your income (sharing income and expenses as if you were living in a family). To get GA as a separate person, not as a household, you must show that there is no pooling. You can do that by bringing receipts, banking records or other written proof that you alone are responsible for your full share of all expenses and that you do not share your income with your roommate.
Spouses or parents and their children cannot be counted as roommates; they are counted in the same "household."
Friends can apply separately as "roommates." So can brothers and sisters.
Can minors get GA?
If you are under the age of 18, you may be eligible. It depends on whether your parents can support you. For example, you should get GA if:
- your parents won't support you,
- you are not safe at your parents' home, or
- you have been supporting yourself for a long time.
If you believe that support from your parents is not reasonably available to you, and the town will not accept you application, or denies you, call Pine Tree Legal.
Can I get GA if I'm a student?
High school and GED students in need can get GA. Students in training programs may also be eligible. Usually, people going to college are not eligible, unless they are in an ASPIRE program, or other program sponsored by the Department of Human Services or the Department of Labor.
If you are one of the following, you cannot be required to do workfare that would interfere with your training program:
- High school students
- Students in approved training programs
- Students in JPTA or STAR training
- Students whose school or college is part of their ASPIRE or PaS plan
- Students whose school program has been judged by the Department of Labor as being likely to lead to a job
You may ask the town to excuse you from any workfare requirement if you are in any of these programs.
How Do They Figure General Assistance?
Emergencies: In an emergency the town should help you if your basic expenses are more than your income. In this situation, the "maximum assistance" rules (explained below) do not apply.
Non-emergency applications. All towns must use a standard “maximum assistance” amount in non-emergency situations. This amount is set by the government. If your income is more than this “assistance maximum,” you cannot get non-emergency GA. For many people, this maximum does not fairly reflect your actual basic expenses. So, with the maximum in place, you may not qualify, even if your basic needs cost more than your income.
Most towns and cities in Maine adopt the Maine Municipal Association's (MMA's) published non-emergency "maximums." This includes maximums for overall monthly assistance, housing, food, utilities and other basic necessities.
However, assuming that your income is less than your town's "maximum," here is how most towns figure your non-emergency GA eligibility. First, most towns consider as "basic necessities":
- Rent or mortgage payment
- Cooking fuel
- Household supplies
- Personal care needs
- Doctor and medical bills
- Transportation (to work, school, or for medical treatment)
- Clothing (where needed)
- Water and sewer charges
- Taxes (when due)
- School lunches
- Dental costs
- Burial costs (where needed)
- Diapers and laundry
- Prescription medicine
- Telephone, if necessary for work or health
Remember, the monthly cost of these needs will be compared to all of your household income for the next 30-days. Your countable income is your actual income minus all of your actual work-related expenses.
The town will also look to see how you spent your money in the past 30 days, to see if any money should have been left over for your current needs. If you spent any money on items other than necessities, the town can pretend that you still have that money, even though it's gone. Some towns ask you to bring in receipts for how you spent your money. It is always a good idea to save your receipts from the grocery store, the gas station, your landlord, utility companies, and anywhere else you have spent your money. If you do not have a receipt that the town asked for, they should accept some other evidence that they can verify.
Here is an example of a GA budget for a family of two:
|Monthly Income||Monthly Expenses|
|Total Income||$475.00||Total Expenses||$525.00|
The town then subtracts the income from the expenses to get your "unmet need."
|$ 525.00 expenses|
|- 475.00 income|
|$ 50.00 unmet need|
Then the town looks back at your income and expenses from last month.
The town will say that the $5.00 left over, and the $5.00 you spent on the movies should go to this month's needs.
|$ 50.00 unmet need|
|- 10.00 available from last month|
|$ 40.00 GA amount|
This family of two will get $40.00 in GA, which they can put toward their rent, electricity, food, or other basic necessities.
Apply for everything you need, even if the town says you will get nothing. You have a right to appeal their decision.
How GA is given out, and what you can use it for
Do I get GA in cash?
No. Most towns will pay your bills or give you a "voucher" to take to your landlord or a local store or supplier.
Can I get GA to pay my mortgage?
Maybe. The town cannot automatically refuse to help you with your mortgage payment. The town has to consider several things. If it would cost the town more to pay rent in a new place for you than to help you with the mortgage, or if you are about to lose your home, or if you are elderly and in poor health, the town will probably help you with a mortgage. If you need mortgage help and you're denied, call Pine Tree Legal.
If you get help with your mortgage, the town may place a lien on your house. If you have enough money, you may want to pay your mortgage yourself and then ask the town for help with your other expenses, so the town can't put a lien on your house. See more on liens.
Can I get GA to help pay back bills?
Maybe. For example, if you are being evicted because your rent is overdue, or if your electricity is disconnected because of an old bill, you may be able to get help. You will probably have to show the town that: you could not afford to pay the bill when it came, there was a good reason you could not pay it when it was due, and you need to pay the back bill now or you will lose a basic necessity.
What can the town count as income?
Can the town count my Food Supplement Benefits (Food Stamps) as income?
No. The town must pretend that you don't get Food Supplements/Food Stamps. The town must count their food maximum in your budget and cannot count your Food Supplement/Food Stamps benefits as income.
Can the town count LIHEAP benefits as income?
No. The town cannot consider benefits received from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program on your GA application. The town must include the amount you spend on heat, even if it was paid for with LIHEAP benefits. In other words, the town must pretend that you did not get LIHEAP.
Can the town make me pay them back?
Sometimes the town can make you pay back GA.
- If you apply for SSI, you must sign a form that says your first SSI check can go to repay GA. The town can go back to when your SSI disability began and keep any money they paid since then. If you do not sign the form, you will not be able to get GA. Usually it is a good idea to sign the form to get the immediate help that you need. Important note: If the town is going to get paid back with your SSI money, you shouldn't have to do workfare. If you do work, then they can't take your SSI for the time you "worked off" the bill. Call Pine Tree Legal if you think your town has double-dipped by making you work and repay from SSI.
- If you ever get workers' compensation, the town has an automatic claim, called a lien, on any workers compensation benefit which is more than one week's benefit. This means that the town can collect your money for any GA you got, not just the GA you got while you were waiting for your workers compensation check. The town cannot keep workers compensation money you are paid because of an accident you had while doing workfare. Also, as with SSI, they cannot make you do workfare and make you repay the amount you "worked off."
- If a town helps you with a mortgage payment, it may file a claim, called a lien, for that amount on your house. The town cannot get any repayment until the house is sold, or until the homeowner who received GA dies. The town cannot make you sell your house or take it from you.
- If you later begin earning a good income, the town may try to collect repayment of the GA you received. The town cannot take any money from your TANF, or from your current monthly disability payments.
- If you lied on your application, you may have to pay back any GA you received. You will also be disqualified from getting GA for at least 120 days, or until you enter a payment agreement, whichever period of time is longer. See below for more information on how this works.
- Sometimes parents may be called upon to repay GA received by any children under age 25. A husband or wife can also be asked to repay the town. The town can only collect from a person who lives, or owns property, in Maine and who can afford to pay. If the town goes after your spouse or parents, it may only seek repayment for GA that it gave you in the last 12 months.
What happens if I leave something out on my application?
You can go back to the town to let them know that you forgot something. But it is always best to put down everything you need at the beginning. If something surprising comes up, you can go back to the town.
If you forgot to report something, you should let the town know as soon as you remember. They will do a new budget for you. You should not get in trouble for just forgetting something. It is always best to be as prepared as possible, though, so you don't leave out important information.
The town can disqualify you for 120 days if you lie ("knowingly and willfully") on your application. In 2015, Maine passed a law that also makes this a Class E crime (or misdemeanor). Under this recent law, the town can also require you to pay back the amount wrongfully paid to you. The town may offer you a payment arrangement. The payback terms must be "reasonable," given your financial situation. But, even if you pay back right away, or sign a pay-back agreement right away, the town can still impose the 120 day penalty period.
The town is not supposed to assume that anything you left out accidentally means you lied. They should talk to you about anything they found out that is different from what you told them. You should not be disqualified for anything that is insignificant, such as that you had a doctor's appointment at 1:00 when it was at 1:15, or if you quit a job 10 years ago and say you never quit any job.
If you think that you are being wrongfully penalized and want legal advice, contact us.
The General Assistance Decision
How do I find out what help I will get?
The town must give you a written decision within 24 hours of applying. The decision will tell you how much GA you will get. If the town refuses to help you, the decision must say why. If you do not get a written decision within 24 hours, call or go to the town office to ask for it.
Sometimes the town asks you to get more information for them before they make a decision. If this seems to be dragging on and creating an emergency, call PTLA right away.
What should I do if I am refused, do not get as much as I need, or am disqualified?
You can call the Department of Human Services at 1-800-442-6003 (TTY: 1-800-606-0215) or call Pine Tree Legal.
You also have the following rights:
- File an appeal. You have the right to a fair hearing by someone who was not in on the first decision.
- You have 5 working days after you get a written decision to appeal. The town office should have a form for you to do this, or else you must write a letter saying you are appealing the decision.
- Your appeal must be in writing.
- Keep a copy of the letter, and make sure it is dated.
The Fair Hearing. At your GA fair hearing, you should bring proof of all your income and expenses. The hearing must be held within 5 working days of your request. You have the right to bring witnesses and to question the town's witnesses. You have a right to be represented. Pine Tree Legal may be able to help.
The fair hearing should be tape recorded by the town. The fair hearing should be held in private. Anyone who decided initially whether you could get GA cannot make the fair hearing decision. Some towns have their selectmen make the fair hearing decision. Some towns have special appeal boards or hire a person from the community to decide.
The Fair Hearing Decision. You must be given a fair hearing decision within 5 working days of your hearing. If you don't agree with the decision, you will have to appeal it to court within 30 days if you want it changed. Appeals are very hard to win without a lawyer. Call PTLA before you go to a fair hearing.
Other Programs That Can Help
Family Crisis Assistance (Emergency Assistance)
Family Crisis Assistance (FCA) pays emergency assistance to needy families with children.
FCA can help if you're being evicted, your appliances fail, or in some other kinds of emergencies. Apply at your nearest Department of Health and Human Services office.
Qualifying families with children who do not get TANF can receive this help one time per year. It is a lump sum amount (equal to 3 times the monthly TANF benefit). The benefit can be used to
resolve emergencies that would interfere with getting or keeping a job. Apply at your nearest Department of Health and Human Services office. Learn more here.
If you need hospital care and cannot afford it, you may be eligible for "Charity Care." Ask to fill out a charity care application at the hospital's business office. More on free hospital care.
Energy Crisis Intervention Program
The Energy Crisis intervention Program (ECIP) is run by your local County Action Program (CAP). ECIP may be able to help you out in an emergency when you need fuel.
Property Tax Abatement
If you need GA and own your home but can't pay your property taxes, you may be eligible for an abatement of your property taxes. You can apply at the town office. More on tax abatements.
We also post this Benefits Checklist about the major financial help programs in Maine.
- Apply for GA in writing.
- Insist on getting a written decision.
- Appeal within 5 days if you are denied or don't get enough help.
- Call Pine Tree Legal or DHHS if you need help with your GA problem.
If You Want To Read More . . .
- You can read your town's GA rules at your town office. Many towns adopt the Maine Municipal Association's Model Ordinance, or some version of this model ordinance.
- Maine General Assistance Statutes. All towns must follow these more general statewide laws.
This material is a public education project sponsored by:
The sponsors wish to thank Dr. Jane Root for her help with readability and Maine Equal Justice for their help with updating.
Updated October 2017