Omaha World-Herald, April 5, 2008: Store price spikes take a bigger share of lower-income people’s paychecks

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Pregnant, jobless and faced with rising food costs, Paula Arndt says that food stamps have never seemed so valuable.

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Her $162 monthly allotment doesn’t stretch very far, especially given the spike in costs at the grocery store.

An American Farm Bureau Federation survey in February found that the total cost of 16 basic grocery items was up 8 percent from just a few months before. A carton of a dozen large eggs was up 55 cents, to $2.16; apples were $1.40 a pound, 13 cents higher than before.

Without the help of food stamps, Arndt doesn’t know how she would get by; two-thirds of her $293 welfare check goes to rent, leaving less than $100 for the month.

By the last count in February, Arndt was among 121,414 Nebraskans who depend on food stamps. Iowa food stamp recipients numbered 250,999.

Both states’ tallies were some of their highest since the food stamp program began decades ago, and they mirror a national trend. The Congressional Budget Office recently projected that a record number of Americans 28 million will be receiving food stamps in coming months.

The numbers track with the economy, as the program was designed to do. More people tap programs such as food stamps during rough economic periods, when unemployment and costs rise. Lower-income people are particularly susceptible to spikes in food and energy costs because they spend a larger share of their income on such necessities.

Todd Landry, director of the state’s Division of Children and Family Services, said Nebraska’s food stamp numbers to date show the state is not feeling the effects of a stalled economy as quickly as other parts of the country.

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He said the state could be headed for a bigger increase in the coming months, depending on how economic events play out.

Also driving increased food stamp usage, local officials say, are two other factors: reduced stigma debit cards have replaced paper food stamps and better efforts to get eligible people signed up, particularly in Iowa.

Iowa simplified its application process, allowing people to apply by phone rather than in person and reducing the reporting requirements. As a result, the number of recipients jumped 63 percent over the past five years as 100,000 people came on the rolls.

Nebraska uses a lengthy application that folds in other public assistance programs and generally requires a face-to-face interview. Advocacy groups have criticized the state for not doing more outreach, but several efforts are under way:

• Plans are in the works for an online application for all economic assistance, including food stamps. It will be launched in September.

• A bill pending before the Legislature would require the state, where practical and feasible, to tap federal funds for maximizing food stamp participation. The bill is on its final reading in the Legislature.

The food stamp program is a federal entitlement benefit open to those whose incomes generally fall at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or $22,800 for a family of three.

Eligibility is derived through a complex formula that allows applicants to subtract a percentage of their earnings, a portion of their assets and costs such as child care from their total income.

Because deductions were capped at 1996 levels, advocates for the poor say food stamps have lost some of their purchasing power.

A new farm bill pending in Congress would remove the cap, which would make more food stamps available to more people.

Food stamp use in Nebraska has steadily increased over the past 30 years with one exception: food stamp rolls decreased in eight successive years following a peak in 1993 of 113,982 recipients. In February of that year, 7 percent of Nebraskans were receiving food stamps the highest portion of the state’s population of any February between 1978 and today.

In 2001, the number of recipients fell to 80,886, or 4.7 percent of the Nebraska population. Since then, rolls have been going up with some fluctuation, with the largest number in March 2007.

Iowa’s rolls over time have seen more dramatic swings, with a 110,000-person jump in the five-year period from 1978 through 1983. That year, 216,608 Iowa residents 7.5 percent of the state’s population at the time received food stamps.

Since then, numbers have fluctuated, dipping to 145,462, or 5 percent of the population, in 1998. In February of this year, the 250,999 recipients were 8.4 percent of the state’s population one of the state’s highest rates over the past 30 years.

Currently, Nebraska is providing food stamps to about two-thirds of those who are eligible, Landry said. That figure was in line with the national average, according to a recently released report from the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center.

The rural nature of Nebraska might be one barrier to people getting the food stamps they need, said John Bailey of the Lyons, Neb.-based Center for Rural Affairs. Bailey said long drives to state offices, an attitude of dealing with hardship privately and a still-lingering stigma of public assistance may keep eligible people from applying, he said.

“You don’t want to be seen in line at the grocery store using food stamps,” Bailey said.

Arndt was less worried about that than getting back on her feet. Under welfare regulations, she is spending 30 hours a week looking for work and volunteering for a nonprofit agency.

She has sent her two older children, ages 4 and 5, to live with their father while she tries to find a job.

So far, the search has been disappointing.

“A lot of places ask me to come back after I have the baby,” said the 26-year-old, who is due in June. “A lot of companies don’t want somebody taking maternity leave for two months.”

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