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Food stamps enrollment rises while unemployment drops

Published: Monday, Dec. 16, 2013 11:53 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 2:55 p.m. CDT

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Hunger likes to hide, but Angie Reeks sees it up close. And although the recession is over and the county’s unemployment rate has fallen to 6.8 percent, from Reeks’ perch, the need is as great as ever.

Based on food stamps use trends within the county – nearly tripling since the start of the recession before recent signs of leveling off – Reeks’ perception is right on.

As a social services case worker for The Salvation Army of McHenry County, Reeks acts as a distributor – the introducer of those who need something to those who have it and are willing to give it. She knows how heavily her clients rely on federal programs such as food stamps. When there are cuts – such as those that went into effect in early November – her clients feel it.

Now, with Congress deciding not if, but how much, to cut food stamp benefits under a proposed new farm bill, she envisions a greater burden for her struggling clients and the efforts scattered across the county to help them.

“The Crystal Lake Food Pantry is the biggest food pantry we have in the county and their resources are stretched,” Reeks said. “That tells me something really scary.”

Although the McHenry County unemployment rate peaked in January 2010 at 11.9 percent, county use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program continued to soar each year since the recession. SNAP still is known by most as food stamps even though goods are now bought through a reloadable card.

Enrollment in the program peaked in spring before declining by 5.5 percent from March to September, the most recent month the data from the Illinois Department of Human Services is available.

In January 2008, about 7,600 McHenry County residents received SNAP benefits at a cost of $856,000 to the federal government, which funds the program. In September, more than 20,700 county residents were receiving the benefits. Last month, the program paid out $2.7 million within the county – a 215 percent increase since before the recession.

The continued rise of SNAP even as unemployment rates decline isn’t contained to the area, but recent figures show the trend is magnified here.

Nationally, 47.8 million people were enrolled in SNAP at the end of last year – up 70 percent since 2008.

While the number of people using the program across the country rose 2.7 percent from February 2012 to February 2013, it rose 10.5 percent in Illinois, the highest of any state, according to an analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute. The rate went up by 14.8 percent in McHenry County during the same time period.

“We’ve got a structural problem,” said Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy for the Illinois Policy Institute. “When you look at the rest of the economy, when you look at the debt, when you look at the pensions, when you look at the unpaid bills, you see a very sick and poor-performing economy. And the only way we’re helping people is by adding them to food stamps.”

In the past dozen years, most states have relaxed the standards individuals need to qualify for SNAP, mainly by changing or eliminating maximum asset requirements.

In Illinois, those with $3,000 or more were disqualified from the program until 2010, Illinois Department of Human Services spokeswoman Januari Smith said. Now, there’s no asset limit.

Smith said the change was made for “clerical” reasons, as it made SNAP applications easier to process. She maintained that very few people were previously found ineligible by the asset limit, and didn’t attribute any significant portion of the growing enrollment to the change.

“I wouldn’t say that’s an expansion,” Smith said.

Instead, the department attributes rapid SNAP growth solely to a slumping economy. Smith pointed to people losing hours and taking pay cuts, factors that don’t show up in unemployment numbers.

For Lisa Clark, of Richmond, the benefits serve to supplement an income that can’t fully support her situation.

A single mother of six, Clark, 45, lives with five of her children in a single-family home. She makes $10 an hour as a full-time teacher’s assistant at a day care center, and still is reeling financially from a five-month span without a job this year during treatment for ovarian cancer.

Relying on the government program can be taxing.

“What you have to go through to get it is unbelievable,” Clark said.

Like all people on SNAP, Clark endured cuts in November when the expiration of the 2009 stimulus law lowered the ceiling on monthly benefits.

A household of five was eligible for a maximum of $793 a month in food stamps in October. That number dropped $43 to $750 after the cuts. Households of one saw benefit maximums fall to $189, an $11 reduction.

Food Stamp reductions under a proposed new farm bill could come in the form of changes to eligibility standards, not just across the board reductions.

Top Senate and House legislators on the issue have been meeting in recent days to find common ground on issues plaguing the overdue deal in an effort to present a bill in January. While the farm bill encompasses several contentious agricultural issues, its most expensive section lies in SNAP benefits.

Negotiations on food stamp spending has been a major hang up during talks. The Senate has called for reductions in spending to the program by $4 billion over the next decade while cuts in the House’s version total about $40 billion during the same time period. The government spent $74.6 billion on SNAP in 2012.

While the types of cuts are still being determined, one concession both sides have reportedly been favorable toward is eliminating a practice called “heat-and-eat.” Residents can currently qualify for increased food stamp benefits by receiving as little as $1 in energy assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a fact legislators have viewed as a loophole.

A new farm bill likely would raise the threshold to between $10 and $20, cutting close to $9 billion from the bill over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But those cuts likely wouldn’t affect McHenry County residents. The McHenry County Housing Authority doesn’t administer LIHEAP funding in such small increments, Executive Director Julie Biel Claussen said.

“You would never be eligible for just a dollar of LIHEAP,” Biel Claussen said.

In response to a request for an interview for this story, U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-14, emailed a statement to the Northwest Herald saying SNAP is a significant aid to other public and private efforts. But he called for changes.

“Recipients of poverty assistance should meet eligibility requirements to participate and I will continue to support SNAP benefits to those who qualify, preserving the safety net for those who need it most,” Hultgren said. “I support the reforms to the SNAP program to return the program to its original mission – feeding the neediest Americans.”

Although cuts in some capacity appear imminent, it’s less clear what they’ll mean for the local organizations filling the gaps.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank, which distributes food in 13 counties, does a study every four years that includes the percentage of their clients who are on SNAP.

The figure was 33 percent in 2009, but it’s sure to have grown when the new study is released this spring.

“Everyone’s situation is unique, but the need is growing, and it continues to grow across our 13 county area,” spokeswoman Donna Lake said.

Asked about what pending cuts would mean for McHenry County residents, Reeks, of The Salvation Army, was audibly stressed.

“Oooof,” she said. “We’d have to have another CROP [Hunger] Walk. We’d have to have some more people out there with food drives.”

(NOTE TO READERS: This story was changed to correct the number of people nationally enrolled in SNAP at the end of last year.)

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