Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 25, 2008: Need for food stamps rising

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Posted: May 25, 2008

Madison – Rising food prices and the slumping economy have contributed to a steep increase in food stamp participation in Wisconsin.

The number of households in the food stamp program, called FoodShare, has increased nearly 10% since a year ago, higher than the 6.5% increase seen nationally.

“What’s happening at the gas pump is happening at the grocery store checkout counter,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force. “Anyone who’s shopping knows it.”

Although it’s too soon for the state to draw definitive conclusions, officials agree that the economy is one of the factors behind the increase in food stamp participation. But enrollment has also been on the rise because some policy changes to the program have made it easier for people to sign up and receive benefits, and participation in a job-training program is now voluntary.

In tough economic times, people’s need for food stamps can be seen more immediately than for other government benefits, said Rea Holmes, executive assistant at the state Department of Health and Family Services.

“People might not need health care services right away way, but they’re going to need food much sooner,” Holmes said.

The cost for a typical basket of groceries has risen 33% in the last year, Tussler said.

While more people across the country are relying on federal assistance, the increase has been greater in Wisconsin. In March, there were 178,290 households benefiting from the program, up from 162,372 a year earlier.

Increased enrollment has no real impact on the state budget, because the federal government covers the costs of providing benefits. Wisconsin pays half of the administrative costs, which amounted to $24.2 million for the state in the 2007 fiscal year.

Local food pantries say they’re also seeing an increase in need and are working to secure the necessary resources.

“Many, many families who were a year ago hanging on, just barely hanging on, have plunged into poverty,” said Bob Mohelnitzky, president and chief executive officer of Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin.

To qualify for FoodShare, a family’s income must fall below 100% of federal poverty guidelines – $21,200 for a family of four in 2008. But those below 130% of the poverty level may deduct such expenses as rent and utilities from their incomes when calculating eligibility, said Jim Jones, FoodShare director.

Enrollment lags

Advocates for the hungry said Wisconsin has lagged other states when it comes to reaching eligible participants. While 65% of those eligible were enrolled in the program nationally in 2005, only 59% of eligible residents were in Wisconsin’s FoodShare program, according to an October 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Enrollment dropped after welfare reform in the late 1990s, and some of the recent increases are part of a rebound from those lows, said Jon Peacock, research director for the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families.

State officials said they have been working in recent years to increase participation statewide – which has historically been lower than Milwaukee – and point to several policy changes that have removed barriers for applicants. Applications can now be submitted online, and an in-person interview is no longer required for those who apply by mail or over the Internet.

“That’s like changing the world,” Tussler said. “People don’t apply because they don’t want to go to the welfare office.”

A change in the two-year state budget passed last fall also removed a requirement that certain FoodShare participants take part in a job-training program, which Holmes said has encouraged more people to apply.

The change is new, so it’s hard to measure its impact yet. But Corey Hoze, director of the Department of Health and Human Services for Milwaukee County, said more people have been seeking FoodShare services because the work requirement isn’t mandatory anymore.

Rep. Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson), co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, said there was concern that removing that requirement would disconnect FoodShare from work.

“Especially in a down economy, we want to be creating jobs and putting people to work, not re-creating welfare,” Rhoades said.

Enrolling in BadgerCare Plus, the state health care program launched in February, may have encouraged people to enroll in FoodShare as well, state officials said.

Tussler said the level of benefits is sometimes a disincentive for people to apply. The average monthly benefit in Wisconsin was $186.85 in 2007, according to the USDA.

Regardless, she said, “If you don’t have enough money to buy food . . . and anybody’s skipping meals, apply for food stamps.”

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