Charlotte Observer, February 28, 2008: Requests for food stamps surge

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Even as Charlotte boasts one of the healthiest economies in the nation, record numbers of people are seeking government help to buy groceries.

Not since the recession that began in 2001 has Mecklenburg County’s Department of Social Services seen such a surge in requests for food stamps, officials say.

With the decline of manufacturing jobs, stagnating wages and a spike in home foreclosures, the number of people who receive food stamps in Mecklenburg County has more than doubled since 2000.

The figure climbed steadily in 2007, jumping about 6 percent in Mecklenburg. Now, about 1 in 10 residents use food stamps.

Escalating food stamp requests is one sign that a recession is imminent, experts say.

“Our office is the first indicator that the economy is headed south,” said Peggy McCoy, economic services director for the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services.

Analysts say Charlotte’s economy remains strong, but faces problems as poverty spreads.

Laid off workers are finding it takes longer to find new jobs. Newcomers to Charlotte say job opportunities are more scarce.

“This presents a significant challenge for us that cannot be ignored,” said Parks Helms, vice chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

No slowdown in requests

On a recent morning at the Department of Social Services office, people looking for financial assistance filled the waiting area. By 11 a.m., 131 people had filled out new applications for food stamps, cash assistance and health coverage.Workers say the crowds are unusual. Applications typically drop in January and February.

“There was no slowdown this year,” said Rodney Adams, support services director. “On Mondays, the line is to the door.”

Applicants must prove they are poor enough to qualify. A family of four can earn no more than $26,845 to receive food stamps.

Successful applicants typically receive about $209 a month.

With food prices rising, some recipients struggle to feed their families and rely on soup kitchens and food giveaways.

Finding work takes longer

Laura Meeks moved to Charlotte from Washington, D.C., two years ago hoping to find work. Meeks, 61, a former administrative assistant, couldn’t find full-time work, so she applied for food stamps.

In December, she said, her savings ran out and she was evicted. She spends days filling out job applications and nights in a homeless shelter, she said.

Meeks depends on $162 a month in food stamps and the generosity of a church to eat. She takes classes at Jacob’s Ladder Jobs Center, a job-training center near the Plaza-Midwood neighborhood that assists the poor.

Job hunts that once took one month for entry and midlevel positions now take six months, said Genea Morfeld Swan, development assistant. Her clients find themselves competing against laid-off professionals, she said.

In September, 81,946 people in Mecklenburg received food stamps compared with 35,496 in 2000, according to statistics from state Department of Health and Human Services.

In the last half of 2007, applicants surged — 6,870 people applied for food stamps compared with 925 in the first half of the year.

Mecklenburg also had the same pattern of rising food stamp requests leading into the recessions of the early 1990s and the early 2000s, records show.

No one knows precisely how much changes in eligibility rules and government efforts to boost participation have influenced food stamp application numbers.

But most evidence suggests economic factors are behind the spike, experts say.

A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington says even a mild recession would put 3 million out of work and drop at least an additional 4.7 million into poverty, forcing more people to rely on government assistance.

The National Bureau of Economic Research determines when the economy is in a recession. It defines a recession as a prolonged decline in industrial production, employment, real income and wholesale-retail sales. President Martin Feldstein has recently said the odds of a recession are at least 50-50.

Low `food security’

More than 35 million Americans lived in households with low or very low “food security” in 2006, reports the USDA’s Economic Research Service. The agency defined these as homes where food is reduced because of a lack of money or resources.Meeks, the woman looking for work, said with food stamps and meals she receives at the homeless shelter, she gets enough to eat. But food stamps cannot be used to pay for medicine, transportation or other basic needs.

She receives tips at Jacob’s Ladder Jobs Center on how to speak and dress during job interviews and gets bus passes to hunt for work.

Recently, she asked the head of a local social service agency if there were any openings for an administrative assistant. When the woman said yes, Meeks presented her resume.

She will wait at least two weeks to find out if she will get an interview.

Want to help?

Among Charlotte agencies that give food to the needy:

Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services community resource office, 704-336-4809.

Loaves & Fishes, 704-523-4333 or

Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, 704-376-1785 or

Urban Ministry Center and St. Peter’s Soup Kitchen, 704-347-0278 or

Find out if you qualify

Get applications for food stamps at the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services office, 301 Billingsley Road, or download an application online at

Qualified applicants must:

Be a U.S. citizen or admitted to the U.S. under a specific immigration status.

Make less than $26,845 (for a family of four).

Show proof of address.

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