Press-Republican

October 14, 2012

Food stamp usage rising in the North Country

By JOE LoTEMPLIO
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — As the economy continues to struggle, more and more people across the nation are finding themselves on food stamps.

The North Country is no different.

“The economy is difficult, and it is hard for families, especially single parents with low wages,” Clinton County Social Services Commissioner Jay T. LePage said.

Nationally, about 44.7 million people received food-stamp benefits in 2011. There were about 28 million in 2004.

Statewide, usage has increased 19 percent from 2011 to this year with 645,967 cases.

The numbers are eyebrow-raising in the North Country as well.

NEARLY DOUBLED

In Clinton County, the number of food-stamp recipients has increased about 47 percent from 2004 to this year with about 11,600 people getting help.

In Essex County, recipients have increased 61 percent over the same time period, with the number of cases going up from 1,208 in 2004 to 1,915 cases in 2011.

There are often many individuals represented by one case, explained John P. O’Neill, commissioner of Essex County Department of Social Services.

In Franklin County, the number is up about 40 percent, with cases rising from 2,237 in 2004 to 3,688 so far in 2012, according to Commissioner Lesley Lyons.

With the struggling economy, many individuals find themselves either out of work or working at a low-wage job. With costs, especially gasoline, continuing to rise, many need food-stamp assistance to feed their families.

ELIMINATING STIGMA

While the economy may be the leading cause of the increase in food-stamp recipients, there are other factors as well.

LePage explained that there is much more public awareness of the program, and the stigma of being on food stamps seems to have waned a bit.

“There are no more actual stamps. You get a benefit card, and that helps,” he said.

Applying for food stamps can be done online, making it easier for people to join the program.

The very name itself, “food stamps,” has also gone by the wayside as the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially changed the name of the program in 2008 to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

ELIGIBILITY GUIDELINES

The program has been around for 40 years, and about one in seven people in the country participate in it.

To qualify, an income has to fall below a certain level. Locally, a family of four must have an income lower than $29,664 per year.

About 28 percent of those in Clinton County in SNAP are working but still make below the qualifying amount.

About 51 percent are children, and about 9 percent are 60 years of age or older.

The average benefit is about $138 per month per individual. There is no limit as to how long a person can be on the program.

The benefits can be used to buy food at supermarkets, large and small grocery stores, convenience and specialty stores, and farmers markets. Alcohol and tobacco cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits.

And they cannot be withdrawn as cash at automated teller machines.

NEED COULD RISE

Participating in the program still does not guarantee individuals will have enough food for themselves or their families, officials said. Area food shelves are seeing major increases in the number of people needing food, including many who get food stamps.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase,” said Dorothy Latta, co-chair of the Plattsburgh Interfaith Food Shelf.

She said numbers are up 17 percent over the past year, as about 120 more households, or about 300 more individuals, come for help per month.

“We see about 550 households per month, and a lot of these people have jobs but either had their hours cut or are having trouble keeping up with rising costs of things, especially gas,” Latta said.

People who visit the Food Shelf are given enough food for four days; they are allowed to visit up to seven times a year.

“We used to give out things like mayonnaise or cooking oil or coffee, but we now try to focus more on food on the plate,” Latta said.

Unfortunately, she said, she would not be surprised to see the need for food stamps and food shelves continue to rise.

“Last year, we had a pretty mild winter and people didn’t have to spend as much on heat, but this year they might have to make a choice,” she said.

COMBATING FRAUD

While the program helps individuals get food for their families, it also helps the local economies.

In Clinton County, about $18 million is spent at local stores each year.

“That’s a lot of money going into stores,” LePage said.

As with any social program, fraud is always a concern with SNAP. To better monitor the program and purchases made, the USDA changed the way benefits are obtained.

As of June 17, 2009, according to the USDA, electronic benefit transfers became the sole method for issuing SNAP benefits, phasing out the food-stamp paper coupons.

The system allows all electronic retail transactions to be monitored and identifies potentially high-risk retailers based on patterns. The information is used to help with investigations, often leading to sanctions against retailers, according to the USDA.

In 2011, there were more than 231,000 stores accepting and redeeming SNAP benefits.

About 83 percent of SNAP benefits were redeemed in supermarkets or super stores in 2010, the USDA said, and about 80 percent of benefits were redeemed within two weeks of issuance.

Email Joe LoTemplio: jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com