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Fresno Bee, July 13, 2008: More public aid being sought

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By Kerri Ginis / The Fresno Bee

07/13/08 22:54:07

After losing her U.S. Postal Service job last month, Marsha Scott has been living off ramen noodles and is down to a block of cheese, eggs and some condiments in her refrigerator.

Hungry and desperate, Scott turned to Fresno County for help. She recently applied for food stamps to tide her over until she finds another job.

“It’s hard to swallow your pride, but it’s a matter of survival,” said the 51-year-old Fresno resident. “I’m just really scared right now.”

With the economic downturn and sky-high gasoline prices, Scott is among a growing number of county residents who need help paying for food, rent and other bills.

Fresno County officials say in the past year and a half, the number of households receiving food stamps jumped 27%. They’ve seen more than a 9% increase in families on welfare, or CalWORKs. And the people receiving general relief — which provides cash for those who don’t qualify for other public-assistance programs — has gone up 36%.

“Obviously people that may not have been interested in our programs in the past really don’t have much of a choice now,” said Christine Balbas, deputy director for the Employment and Temporary Assistance Department. “It’s a matter of survival and making sure their kids are fed.”

A similar trend is developing across the state as more people struggle. Other Valley counties — including Tulare and Madera — also are seeing increases.

In Madera County, public-assistance applications are up about 20% from last year, said Hub Walsh, director of social services. Tulare County officials estimate they’ve seen about a 5% increase.

In Fresno County, officials are trying to process applications as quickly as possible. People who are destitute are able to get their benefits the same day.

Many of those turning to the county for help have recently lost jobs or had their hours at work reduced, officials say. Many hope the public assistance they’re receiving is a temporary measure.

Others need more lasting help. Over the past two years, the number of families receiving welfare checks has grown by more than 2,500 to about 26,000, Balbas said.

There is a 60-month lifetime limit for adults receiving monthly cash assistance, Balbas said. There are no time restrictions for children on welfare.

The need is obvious at the Employment and Temporary Assistance Department’s Heritage Center satellite office. People have been lining up outside the door as early as 7:30 a.m. over the past two weeks to get food stamps.

“We’re getting a lot of first-timers who say, ‘I never thought I would be here’, ” said Barbara Boswell, program manager.

At that one county site, the number of food-stamp applications has increased by 30% in the past year. The staff is processing about 1,500 food-stamp applications a month at the Heritage Center. The average monthly household allotment is $302 countywide.

Part of the increase in food-stamp applications is due to a countywide effort to reach out to people who might not realize they are eligible for the program.

Caseworkers are contacting local agencies that also provide assistance — including local food banks — to let people know food stamps are an option.

The outreach effort has helped to take some of the pressure off local food banks, which are struggling to keep up with the demand for food.

But not everyone is getting the help they need. Some people who just need a way to reduce some of their monthly expenses make too much money to qualify for food stamps, officials say.

Among them is Angelica Lester.

Lester, 21, recently applied for food stamps but was told her yearly income is $500 more than the qualifying limit for a family of two, which ranges from $1,484 to $1,883 a month, depending on individual circumstances. Lester, a full-time college student who holds a part-time job, is caring for her mother.

“I’m basically scraping, trying to find extra money to pay the food, the bills, the car and everything else,” she said. “I do have food in the house. I spent $100 two weeks ago, but we’re getting down to the wire here.”

Lester was given a preliminary estimate that she was over the limit. She is continuing to pursue her application to see if there is anything more that can be done to get her qualified.

For Scott, the food stamps she received are the only way she can provide for herself and her 17-year-old daughter, she said. She had been a data conversion operator at the U.S. Postal Service operation in Selma, which is closing in November. She keyed in addresses that couldn’t be scanned, and she redirected mail.

Scott said she is looking for a job, sending out resumes daily and scanning the want ads.

She also is taking classes through the University of Phoenix, hoping to obtain a bachelor’s degree in human services.

But Scott said the competition for jobs is fierce, and she hasn’t found anything yet. She said she will have to rely on food stamps until she has a stable income.

“Even if I go get a minimum-wage job, it’s still going to be tough to make ends meet,” she said. “It’s just a really scary time right now.”

The reporter can be reached at kginis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6317.

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