Participation in North Carolina’s Food and Nutrition Services program, previously known as “food stamps,” has increased, with the number of households receiving assistance doubling in all but two of the state’s 17 westernmost counties in the past seven years. The two counties whose food assistance cases did not double, Mitchell and Yancey, also have had significant increases in assistance since 2005.
This increase likely is due to continuing poor economic conditions, as well as policy changes in July 2010 that expanded eligibility allowing more people to become eligible for program benefits, social services representatives agree.
“The first and foremost reason, in my opinion, for the surge in assistance is the economy (both unemployment and under-employment). I have personally talked to citizens who have come to the DSS for assistance for the first time in their lives due to drastic reductions in earnings,” Stoney Blevins, director of the Transylvania County Department of Social Services, said in an e-mail.
“On a minor level, an increase in income guidelines up to 200 percent of the national poverty level for food assistance assistance, as well as elimination of countable reserves that went into effect July 1, 2010, have allowed some people to be eligible for assistance who may not have been eligible prior to that date, even if their income has remained stable,” Blevins said.
Carolina Public Press surveyed many area Department of Social Service officials to gauge food assistance use and the cause of increases. Many other Department of Social Service representatives across the region share Blevins’ assessment of the likely causes for the higher number of households seeking food assistance in Western North Carolina counties.
“McDowell County has seen a 30 percent increase in households receiving benefits in a two-year period. In 2010, 49 percent of the households receiving food assistance in McDowell County had no children and 51 percent of households had from one to five children,” Denise Prewitt, supervisor of the Food and Nutrition Services program in that county, said in an e-mail. “At the end of January 2012, the number of households without children has increased to 56 percent. We have seen a lot of clients over the age of 40 have a harder time finding employment.”
Jean Knight, 59, of Haywood County, turned to her local Department of Social Services for help in July 2011, during a particularly low time in her life. Not only had she been terminated from her grocery clerk job for not handling a customer’s “extreme couponing” properly, but she was penalized and unable to begin receiving unemployment benefits for eight weeks.
For the next two months, Knight had no income. Her husband, who is battling cancer, receives $600 a month in federal disability benefits. After paying about half of that for their mobile home loan payment and the other half for their truck payment, the couple had very little left for food and utilities.
Knight was awarded about $300 a month in food assistance. However, when her unemployment benefits finally kicked in, her benefits decreased. Although her weekly unemployment checks were only $130, her food assistance dipped to only $40 a month as her income increased.
“I don’t want to sound unappreciative, but I just do not know how two people are supposed to survive on $1,000 a month and you can’t buy much food with $40,” Knight said.
Most households currently receiving food assistance get a larger allocation, depending upon their circumstances and income.
The average food assistance allotment a household receives in Haywood County is $253 a month, according to Debbie Brown, Economic Services Supervisor for the Haywood County Department of Social Services.
Currently, 10,152 Haywood County individuals receive food assistance through the assistance program. That’s 20 percent more than the number receiving the help two years ago, Brown said in an e-mail.
Of those, 3,313 are children under the age of 16 and 1,905 are over the age of 50, with nearly half of the recipients falling in the middle. The average household size is two. The total dollar amount of Food and Nutrition Services benefits issued in January 2012 to Haywood County recipients was nearly $1.3 million.
“The number of individuals receiving food assistance has increased and we have seen a steady increase in the number of individuals receiving assistance in Haywood County since 2006,” Brown said in her e-mail.
In the past five years, Clay County has experienced a 126 percent increase in food assistance cases, according to Becky Grindstaff, FNS Supervisor for that county
“Our county has a high number of self-employed individuals who were working in the construction and real estate industry. Once the recession hit, most work involved in those areas became scarce and we have been able to serve many families working in these areas,” Grindstaff said in an e-mail.
Of the 2,052 people currently being served, about $230,458 in food assistance benefits were authorized during the month of January, Grindstaff said.
Buncombe County has seen a steady increase in applications for food assistance since 2008, said Marty Phillips, Food and Nutrition Services director. The number of households receiving assistance soared from 8,995 in 2008 to 18,690 last year.
“One of the first indicators of a downturn of the economy is when more people apply for food assistance,” Phillips said. “The majority of our cases have some form of income, but it’s just not enough,” he said.
The average allotment per household in Buncombe County is $248 a month and the average household size is two people, Phillips said. “Buncombe County allocated almost $49 million in food assistance last year,” he said.
Depending on each case, most applicants are reviewed every six months to see if the household continues to meet the eligibility criteria, which is the case statewide.
Senior citizens, who have incomes that do not change, are reviewed annually. There is no limit on how long a household can receive food assistance.
Guidelines determine who receives food assistance; Buncombe to test new program
The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds 100 percent of the food assistance program. The state and federal governments share administrative costs. The N.C. Department of Human Services determines eligibility.
Households whose income is up to or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines are potentially eligible to receive assistance through the Food and Nutrition program.
Monthly benefit levels for food assistance is determined by the number of household members, the household’s monthly income minus certain household expenses.
The maximum income monthly for a household of two, for example, is $2,452 at the 200 percent benchmark, minus the allowed household and other expenses. The maximum benefit amount would be allotted to families with no income. The higher the income, the less benefits a household would receive.
Households may have $2,000 in resources, such as bank accounts and money in certain retirement accounts, or up to $3,250 in resources if at least one person is age 60 or older or disabled. Homes, buildings and land are not considered as part of a person’s resources. Supplemental Security Income or Work First payments also are not considered as resources.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based on a study of data gathered in the 2010 fiscal year, 49 percent of all participants in the nation are children (17 or younger), and 49 percent of them live in single-parent households. Fifteen percent of all participants are elderly (age 60 or older), with 20 percent of all participants being non-elderly disabled people. The average gross monthly income per food assistance household is $731, and the average net income is $336.
What once came in the form of rations and later paper food stamps is now a plastic “Electronic Benefits Transfer” (EBT) card that can be used at most grocery stores and some farmers’ markets. EBT cards may not be used to purchase tobacco, pet food, paper products, soap products or alcoholic beverages.
North Carolina residents can use an online tool called ePASS to screen for potential eligibility for Food and Nutrition Services. Each member of the FNS household must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible immigrant.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Social Services is in the process of implementing a new program called North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology to change the way the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and county departments of social services do business.
The program will enable case workers to spend less time on administrative tasks and more time assisting families, said Lori Walston, public information officer for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Public Affairs. The new software program will eliminate some of the frustration of people applying for assistance, she said.
“NC FAST will create a uniform case management system across all 100 counties that will allow information to be shared for individuals needing assistance, so the process does not become cumbersome,” Walston said.
Buncombe County will roll-out the program as one of the state’s pilot counties in May or June. The remaining western counties are scheduled to launch NC FAST by late October.