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Utica Observer-Dispatch, July 23, 2008: More needing public help

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By ANGELICA A. MORRISON

Observer-Dispatch

Posted Jul 23, 2008 @ 11:26 PM

Last update Jul 23, 2008 @ 11:29 PM

Hard economic times and rising food and fuel costs are boosting the number of local households using food stamps and other public assistance.

The number of cases for food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance has been steadily increasing since June 2007, according to the Oneida County Department of Social Services.

PUBLIC ASSISTANCE AT A GLANCE

To inquire about receiving social services, call 798-5700 in Oneida County and 867-1222 in Herkimer County.

Oneida County Department of Social Services cases

Food Stamps

* June 2007: 11,987 cases.

* June 2008: 12,965 cases.

Temporary Assistance

* June 2007: 2,104 cases.

* June 2008: 2,190 cases.

Medicaid

* June 2007: 24,185 cases.

* June 2008: 25,675 cases.

Herkimer County Department of Social Services cases

Food Stamps

* June 2007: 2,859 cases.

* May 2008: 3,242 cases.

* June 2008: 3,305 cases.

Temporary Assistance

* June 2007: 334 cases.

* May 2008: 361 cases.

* June 2008: 359 cases.

Medicaid

* June 2007: 6,676 cases.

* May 2008: 6,781 cases.

* June 2008: 6,867 cases.

Sources: Oneida County and Herkimer County departments of social service

In Oneida County:

* The number of food stamp cases increased about 8 percent between June 2007 and June 2008 from 11,987 cases to 12,965.

* Temporary Assistance cases were up 4 percent during the same period from 2,104 cases to 2,190 cases.

* And Medicaid cases rose 6 percent from 24,185 cases in June 2007 to 25,675 cases in June 2008.

And the increase isn۪t limited to local households.

“I think you۪re seeing it all across the board in New York state,” state Department of Social Service spokesman Michael Hayes said. “When the economy gets like it is today, when fuel prices are so high, you۪re seeing more people who might not otherwise apply for food stamps are now stretched even further and that contributes to the increase of people who are on public assistance.”

Nationwide, food prices in April took their biggest one-month leap in 18 years and are rising at a rate well above last year۪s increase. Milk costs 10.2 percent more than it did a year ago. The U.S. Labor Department said consumer prices rose 1.1 percent in June, nearly the fastest pace in a generation, as gasoline hit record highs.

Jennifer Vertucci of Utica is a single mother of an 18-month-old. She works as a baby sitter, goes to school and relies on help from family members and social services to make ends meet, she said.

“You۪ve got to,” said Vertucci, 23. “Especially with things going up, the food costs are going up, cigarettes are going up, gas is going up, and the money you get paid isn۪t going up. You got to do what you got to do.”

In addition to the economic pressures, the state has worked over the past five years to make it easier for working poor families to apply for the program. That includes eliminating fingerprinting of recipients outside New York City. Food stamps can provide $200 a month for groceries.

Telephone and online applications also are available, Hayes said.

“We۪re trying to connect people to benefits so they can make strides to participate in the middle class,” Hayes said. “I think one of the things we۪re trying to overcome is the misnomer that just because you have a job or a house that you۪re not eligible for food stamps,” Hayes said.

Measures under Gov. David Paterson۪s push to better serve the working poor include providing more places to apply for food stamps and reducing the penalty for receiving some other benefits, such as help paying heating bills in the winter.

Statewide, New York households using food stamps rose to nearly 1 million.

Working poor families in rural Herkimer County also are feeling the pain. There, 63 more cases for food stamps were opened in June compared to May, for a total of 3,305 cases. The county of 63,332 people had an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent in June, compared to 4.2 percent in June 2007.

“There are working families who don۪t earn enough to support their families in many cases,” county Social Service Commissioner Erving Fuller said. “Overall everything is on an incline with the heating season right around the corner. It۪s going to be difficult.”

Contributing: Michael Gormley, The Associated Press

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