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Mayor Marianne Moore supports the work rules.
Mayor Marianne Moore supports the work rules.Fred field for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

CALAIS, Maine — Even the thrift shop in this remote city along the Canadian border is going out of business.

Storefronts sit eerily vacant on Main Street; the downtown methadone clinic is one of the few businesses attracting activity. Joe Rosebush, the thrift store owner, said his friends have found syringes in parks and even he, a retired minister in his 60s, knows how to get "rock cocaine."

He said he plans to pack up his camper and leave for good "as soon as I can."

Calais exists on the edge of the US economy, but at the center of a debate over the reach of the economic recovery and the shift in policies as conditions broadly improve. Several states, including Massachusetts, have tightened work requirements for receiving public assistance.

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Here in Maine, Governor Paul LePage, a first-term Republican locked in a tough reelection campaign, allowed a federal waiver to expire earlier this year. That, in turn, allows Maine to reinstate requirements that people work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week to qualify for food stamps.

LePage noted that Maine has more jobs than a few years ago, and said that the stricter rules will help rein in a generation of Mainers who have grown "dependent on government handouts."

Most people who receive food stamps have jobs, albeit low-paying ones, and LePage's move affects about 12,000 people in the state. For those in Calais (pronounced Cal-las), a remote city of 3,000, meeting the work requirements could prove particularly challenging because jobs are so scarce.

Calais was once a booming center for forestry and paper mills; today just one pulping mill remains. The unemployment rate, 9 percent, is nearly double the state average. Median worker earnings are just $24,000, according to the US Census. One in five families with children live in poverty. Nearly one in four people receive food stamps.

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Talk to anyone in town, from the mayor to a waitress, and they will say the prospects for economic revival are grim. But in dozens of interviews, most residents said they support the "work for food stamps" plan.

At the Irene Chadbourne Ecumenical Food Pantry on Main Street in Calais, which gives food to more than 500 households a year, many clients said the social service system, and food stamps in particular, is plagued with abuse.

Jean Wade, in her 50s, said she lives modestly on disability payments. As she carried bags of food to her car one recent morning, she said that too many young people in the area, including her own son, are willing to accept food stamps and work under the table.

"They sneak around doing odd jobs and getting paid." she said. "We need to be whipped into shape."

Paula Seeley, 51, accompanied her elderly brother-in-law to the food pantry. She said Walmart is hiring, yet many young people won't apply for jobs. She and her husband moved to the area from Greater Boston several years ago to retire early. She also supports the requirement to work or volunteer.

"It's the ones that are able to work, and don't work, and don't have kids," she said. "Go get a job!"

The food pantry operates from a historic house on Main Street and, according to its data, about 70 percent of the people it serves also receive food stamps. About one-third of the clients are under age 18. Run by a coalition of church groups, it recently started a program to give schoolchildren who receive federally subsidized lunches backpacks filled with fruit, vegetables, and other food every Friday to help ensure they get healthy meals over the weekend.

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Arthur Carter, the pantry's 81-year-old director, said his typical client earns about $13,000 a year. But he, too, supports work requirements for food stamps.

"To be very blunt about it," he said, "there's a hell of a lot of work to do around here, and we could use volunteers."

Carter, like many Calais residents, chose to retire in this remote corner of Maine because of its natural beauty and affordability. The town is situated along the St. Croix River, where salt water meets fresh and the tide rises and falls more than 20 feet, the greatest rise and fall in the continental United States. Winnebagos fill the roadways. About 20 percent of the Washington County population is 65 or older, compared with about 13 percent nationally.

"If you're coming here, you bring your own income," Carter said. "You're not going to get one here."

Mayor Marianne Moore said the Calais economy is worse than it was just a few years ago, when federal stimulus dollars helped keep people and industry afloat with extended unemployment benefits and other programs.

Recently, a pharmacy on Main Street closed after more than 60 years in business.

"We're still limping, still on crutches trying to get through it," she said of the recession.

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Moore, who retired here 13 years ago from Texas, said she, too, supports the work requirement for food stamps. "They could find work," she said. "They could go get a job."

People waited on benches for their turn at the Irene Chadbourne Ecumenical Food Pantry on Main Street in Calais, Maine.
People waited on benches for their turn at the Irene Chadbourne Ecumenical Food Pantry on Main Street in Calais, Maine.Fred Field for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Recently, the area's only remaining paper pulp plant, Woodland Pulp, just outside Calais, said it would hire 80 workers when it creates a new bathroom tissue division. Moore said the local community college had openings to train 40 workers for those jobs; 140 people applied.

As plants have closed in the past decade, the area has become infamous for abuse of prescription painkillers like Oxycontin, known as "hillbilly heroin." The methadone clinic seems like one of the few operations with a steady business downtown.

Second Baptist Church is within walking distance of the clinic. Pastor Matt Burden, 32, said he didn't want to support someone using food stamps so that they have income for drugs, but he wanted to help people in the throes of addiction.

"I don't want to be in the place where I'm taking necessary food away from people who need it," he said. But when drugs are involved, he added, "that's much harder to figure out."

At the food pantry, Pam Morehouse of Baileyville, a village near Calais, hauled a wagon with bags of free food — apples, potatoes, cereal — to a worn minivan where her 73-year-old mother waited.

Morehouse was laid off several years ago from a mill where she had worked for nearly three decades. Now in her 50s, she said she can't find full-time work. She earns less than $10,000 a year working part time at a nearby woolen mill.

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Two of her adult children live at home and hold minimum wage jobs, one at Dunkin' Donuts and the other at an Irving gas station. Another daughter, 15, is in school.

Together, they earn too much to qualify for food stamps, but not enough to avoid trips to the pantry after paying the mortgage, heating costs, and other bills.

More people need help, she said as tears welled in her eyes, not fewer.

"It makes me angry the system can't be there for someone who is trying," she said. "I'm trying to live."


Megan Woolhouse
can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.