Chicago Tribune, January 25, 2008: Number of households on food stamps doubles since 2000
By DAVID PITT
Associated Press Writer
2:02 PM CST, January 25, 2008
DES MOINES, Iowa
The number of households on food stamps more than doubled since 2000 as did the amount of money spent on the federally funded food assistance program, state officials said.
In 2000 the average number of households each month on food stamps was 52,785. The annual cost of the program was $100.8 million. Last year the number of households grew to 109,652 and the annual cost of the program ballooned to $273.2 million, according to Iowa Department of Human Services figures.
The state Bureau of Research and Statistics released figures Friday.
The report shows dramatic increases in the number of households and the number of individuals using food stamps. An average of 241,340 individuals received food stamps each month last year, about 48 percent more than the 124,384 that received the benefits in 2000.
The average benefit paid monthly to each recipient also increased from $67.50 in 2000 to $94.34 last year, a 28 percent increase.
Iowa Department of Human Services spokesman Roger Munns attributed much of the growth to a number of changes in the food assistance program that makes application and use easier.
In 2003, Iowa did away with the paper coupons removing the stigma once associated with standing in a grocery line counting and handing over paper food stamps. Now, users have a plastic card that they swipe through credit card machines at grocery stores.
“It permits a food stamp customer to appear like anyone else running a debit card through the machine,” Munns said. “Before, when you pulled out the coupons you advertised to the world, ‘I am poor.’ That was a barrier to some people applying.”
The plastic cards also ended food stamps thefts and the inefficiency of printing and mailing the coupons.
The DHS also eliminated monthly reporting and now requires recipients to document job status and other qualifying factors every six months.
In addition, the department simplified application forms and allows recipients to apply through a toll-free telephone number or on the Internet. Previously, applicants had to go to a county DHS office to apply in person.
Munns said he believes much of the increased participation is due to the changes and effort to get as many eligible recipients signed up.
“The government has decided that it is a good public policy not to have hunger. Until that policy is changed, we’re going to do our best to administer the law,” Munns said. “You can argue whether there ought to be a program, but that’s beyond our scope. What we know is that this program exists and it is our job to be as efficient as possible in delivering it.”
Increased food assistance use echoes recently released statistics that shows poverty on the rise in Iowa.
From 2000 to 2005, the state’s poor population increased to 10.8 percent from 8.3 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released earlier this month.
In addition, median incomes were up 7.8 percent in Iowa over the five years, while inflation rose about 13 percent. Iowa’s median income of $43,610 in 2005 needed to be $4,000 higher to keep pace with inflation. Child poverty in Iowa was up 29 percent, to 97,700 children.
A report released last July by the Drake University Agriculture Law Center showed that about 11 percent of Iowa households had low food security in 2003-2005, compared with 8 percent in 1996-1998. Those households describing their situation as very low food security rose from 2.6 percent to 3.5 percent for the same period.
Low food security was defined as a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food or uncertain availability to get food in socially acceptable ways. Very low food security was defined in the report as the recurrent and involuntary lack of access to food.
Mike Owen, a spokesman for the Iowa Policy Project, in Iowa City, a nonprofit think tank, said the trends indicate more Iowans are finding it harder to keep up financially.
“If you look across other measures you can see that poverty is up, lack of health insurance is up and food insecurity is up,” he said. “This would indicate there are growing numbers of Iowa families that are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet.”