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Updated: Sunday, 17 Mar 2013, 10:45 AM EDT
Published : Monday, 30 Aug 2010, 10:45 AM EDT
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - Nearly one out of every seven Rhode Islanders gets food stamps now, as a combination of high unemployment, expanded eligibility and stepped-up outreach has doubled enrollment in the federally funded program.
A record 146,338 Rhode Islanders received food stamps in July, or nearly 14 percent of the state’s 1 million residents, according to the R.I. Department of Human Services. That is twice the number of individuals who were enrolled in the program in January 2007, the month before Rhode Island began losing jobs.
The federal government spent $171 million on food stamps in the state in 2009, up from $89 million two years earlier.
Compared with a few years ago, “we see a lot more working people – people with a job right now – as well as people who have lost jobs and are on unemployment,” Maria Cimini, who coordinates the state’s food stamp outreach program, told Eyewitness News. “We’ve seen a lot of changes like that.”
Unemployment boosts rolls
The economy is one key reason for Rhode Island's big increase in food insecurity, a term the government uses for households that do not have enough money for groceries throughout the month. The state’s jobless rate was 11.9 percent in July, with 68,300 workers unemployed.
To qualify for food stamps, individuals’ pre-tax income must be less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level - $2,823 a month for a family of three. The average monthly benefit was $139 per person and $276 per household last year.
With the jobless rate falling and employers slowly starting to hire again, Cimini expects the number of food stamp recipients to rise less quickly in the coming months. “I expect we will continue to see increases, but not to the dramatic extent we’ve seen,” she said.
Nationally, more than 40 million Americans got food stamps in July.
Surge at food pantries
The number of Rhode Islanders who receive some sort of food assistance is even larger than the number enrolled in food stamps, because some only turn to food pantries for help, said Michael Cerio, spokesman for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
The nonprofit’s network of more than 300 food programs statewide now serves an estimated 55,000 people a month, about half of whom also get food stamps, Cerio said. The food bank distributed a record 9.7 million pounds of food in the year ended June 30, up from 8.4 million pounds two years ago.
“Many of our neighbors are being faced with difficult choices as they struggle to put food on the table for their families,” Andrew Schiff, the food bank’s CEO, said in an e-mail. “In particular, the number of children served through our network is of enormous concern since hunger takes a tremendous toll on children’s learning and health.”
Almost half of all young Americans and 90 percent of black children will be on food stamps at some point before their 20th birthday, according to a study published last November by Mark Rank, a poverty expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
Cars, 401(k)s allowed
A series of technical changes made by federal and state policymakers over the past two years has expanded the number of people in Rhode Island who are eligible to get food stamps, which switched from actual stamps to plastic debit cards in 1998.
Among other changes, they raised the maximum pre-tax income people could have from 130 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent; increased the number of people classified as receiving other benefits, which makes them eligible for food stamps, too; and stopped excluding people for having assets such as 401(k)s and higher-value vehicles.
The last of those changes allowed laid-off workers to qualify for food stamp benefits without liquidating their savings and selling their cars, Cimini said.
The minimum food stamp benefit also increased from $10 to $14 and was tied to inflation, which Cimini said convinced more people to sign up. Recipients can now save their monthly benefits for up to 12 months before using them.
Food stamps are also being accepted at a wider variety of establishments, including farmers markets, convenience stores and chains such as CVS and Target. The state is also exploring the possibility of allowing the benefits to be used for hot meals to assist homeless people and senior citizens who cannot cook, Cimini said.
No longer a laggard
Rhode Island has also taken steps to shed its reputation as a laggard in getting people eligible for food stamps to actually enroll in the program.
In 2006, only 55 percent of eligible Rhode Islands were getting food stamps, the fifth-lowest rate in the country and well below the national average of 67 percent. That rose to 60 percent in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available, and likely has continued to increase, Cimini said.
To get more people to sign up, state officials streamlined the process by sharply reducing the length of the application to join the program. They created a short, four-page application solely for seniors, who in the past had been reluctant to apply. A year ago, they started allowing applicants to do phone interviews instead of face-to-face meetings.
Rhode Islanders “are willing to take more of a chance now [by applying] because it’s not so much of an outlay [of time] for them,” Cimini said.
Rhode Island’s approach to spreading the word about food stamps changed in mid-2005 from primarily media advertisements to direct one-to-one outreach. Students received training in the program’s nuts and bolts and then fanned out across the state to places where they expected eligible residents would be found.
“That changed the face of outreach in Rhode Island,” Cimini said. “We now physically fill out applications for people and mail them in to [the Department of Human Services] … and really hold their hand in a way that DHS can’t because they’re so understaffed.” The department hired nine additional food stamp workers last year.
In addition to the efforts by her own Feinstein Center for a Hunger-Free America at URI, Cimini credited the work of advocacy groups like the food bank, Rhode Island Kids Count, the George Wiley Center and The Poverty Institute for pushing the outreach changes.
Stigma fades for young
The first food stamp program started in 1939, during the Great Depression, as part of FDR's New Deal. Before it began the government had been buying, storing and distributing excess food collected from farmers, and federal officials decided it would be easier to give needy individuals vouchers to buy food.
That effort ended after four years, and it was not until 1964, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, that a permanent food stamp program was created. It expanded nationwide during the decade that followed.
In 1979, the government stopped forcing people enrolled in the program to purchase all their groceries using food stamps. (Recipients had been required to purchase additional stamps if they wanted to spend more on food than they could using the subsidized ones they received.) Other changes included dropping a requirement that those enrolled have cooking equipment at home, which excluded the homeless.
In recent years the stigma that had long been attached to food stamps has eased, particularly among younger Americans, Linda Sebelia, an adjunct professor at URI who works on nutrition education, said in May. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have backed the program, which Congress renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program two years ago.
“We still face a lot of people who are embarrassed and hesitant and scared,” Cimini said. “But the need is so much greater and there just aren’t the services available for people anymore, and it’s not easy to find a job now and the hardship is so much greater, that people are willing to do things that they weren’t able to do before.”
Copyright WPRI 12
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