Watauga Democrat
April 3, 2009


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Food stamp usage

keeps rising
By Scott Nicholson

With unemployment rising and the economy still sluggish, the Watauga County Department of Social Services is handling record numbers of food-stamp applications.

DSS director Jim Atkinson said when he took the position in 1997, the county had 650 food-stamp recipients.

In February, there were 1,159 cases, up from 1,127 in January. Cases are measured by households, with eligibility based on family size and income.

Though money for the program comes from Raleigh, the county pays the cost of the debit transactions, since food stamps are issued as electronic benefit transfer cards instead of stamps or vouchers. The county spends between $10,000 and $12,000 a year on transaction fees for the program, and Atkinson said his staff was also handling more applications without any increase in staff size.

"We're seeing a great increase in the number of applications, and we're having to do them without any additional staff," Atkinson said. He also expects the county costs for transactions will increase in the next budget year.

Some money for food stamps has been included in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds, but Atkinson said the state government hasn't made solid plans for spending. He said he's heard that it will likely come in the form of an increase of about $20 per household instead of additional administrative money.

"We've not gotten anything officially," Atkinson said. "If there's going to be a change, it's probably going to be on the amount that's allotted on the card. There are 'x' amount of dollars in Raleigh to be used for this purpose."

The 1,159 Watauga households receiving food stamps represent 2,389 people, with a transaction value last year of $239,361. According to 2000 U.S. Census data, about 4.6 percent of people in Watauga County received food stamps and the poverty rate was 18 percent.

North Carolina will receive $145 million in additional food stamp benefits over the next six months.

Supporters say the additional money will stimulate the economy with spending, predicting an overall ripple effect on the economy of $270 million.

Estimates are that families will see their food stamp benefits increase by 13.6 percent, or about $20 to $24 per person per month for most families. As of December, 1,072,607 North Carolinians received food stamps, a 16 percent increase over one year earlier.

A record 32 million Americans received food stamps in January, or about one in 10 people. The federal-stimulus act provides $4 billion in added benefits nationally over the next six months to increase consumer demand and stimulate the economy.

During the first year of the recession, beginning in December 2007, food stamp enrollment nationally increased by more than 4 million people, or about 15 percent. Nearly nine in 10 households that receive food stamps have incomes below the poverty line.

"The number of applications have more than doubled since July," Atkinson said. "We have seen as much of an increase in the last three months as we did the 12 years prior to that."

Atkinson said he'd like to have some part-time staff positions added to help handle the food of applications, but acknowledged it was unlikely given the current fiscal environment. He also predicts the cost of handling transactions would go up. "It's going to be big next year," he said.

A family of four would need a gross income of less than $2,297 a month to be eligible for food stamps.

Recipients must have proof of U.S. citizenship and must a limited amount of financial resources.


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