Yakima Herald-Republic (Washington), July 7, 2008: Food-stamp increase can’t come soon enough

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Yakima Herald-Republic

Here’s the bad news:

While record-high gas prices have gotten almost all the attention as drivers struggle just to pay for necessary travel, the cost of some of the most basic foods have also risen at unheard of rates over the past year.

Consider these examples, comparing June 2008 to June 2007:

* Eggs have increased 95 percent.

* Milk is up 67 percent.

* Rice has increased 42 percent.

* Pasta — as in the old standby mac & cheese — is up 30 percent.

* Even fruits and vegetables overall are 20 percent more.

Every family feels the pinch, both at the pump and at the grocery check-out line.

But those hit hardest in Washington are the nearly 300,000 families who use food stamps to stretch their grocery dollars. The maximum benefits to a family of four is $542 a month, or $4.50 per day for each person. And that family of four, used as an example, cannot have a total gross household income of more than $26,900.

If that family of four has two adults working full time at minimum wage, its total household income would be $33,570 — and they would be on their own to feed themselves and their two children.

But there is some good news for the state’s poorest families:

This fall that gross income cap for Washington residents will increase to $42,000 for a family of four. Right now, that means an additional 23,000 families in Washington will be eligible for food stamps under the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

One problem is that the Oct. 1 increase is nearly three months away, and with prices increasing at the rate they are today, who knows how much more our pennies will be pinched by then?

There may be some who quibble about the amount of that income-cap increase; today’s cap is 130 percent of the federal poverty level, and it is going up to 200 percent.

Is that too much in one jump? Could there be an interim step, perhaps 165 percent or 170 percent of the poverty level?

There certainly could be — but we would argue that while a smaller increase would be better than nothing, it wouldn’t do nearly enough to help ease the pressure on families who are already turning to food banks in increasing numbers to supplement their income and food stamps.

The piece of the puzzle that would make this even better news for the hardest hit families would be an increase in the dollar amount of food stamps they may receive.

According to a spokesman for the state Department of Social and Health Services, which administers the federal program for the state of Washington, the “maximum allotment” — now at $542 a month for a family of four — will almost certainly go up this fall as well. But that’s determined at the federal level by the USDA, and the state has yet to receive official word, either that there will definitely be an increase or how much.

We hope that word comes soon.

While raising the income cap will provide relief for additional families much in need of help buying groceries, that won’t do anything for the families already receiving food stamps and unable to make them stretch through the month.

As a representative of food retailers statewide explained in a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, “This is unprecedented; there have never been these kinds of (food price) increases all at once.”

The spokeswoman — Jan Gee, president of the Washington Food Industry Association — blamed rising fuel costs for part of the spike in food prices. But the growing demand for ethanol — which takes grain out of food production — plus the weakening dollar and greater foreign demand for food are also factors.

The only problem we see with the planned increase as of Oct. 1 is that it isn’t coming sooner.

Consider one more way of looking that the numbers: While these caps are based on gross household income, what families have to spend is actually their net income — and put that way, the cap right now is $20,650. It will go up to about $32,300. Figuring the roughly 10 percent of their income that Americans spent for food in 2007, that new, higher cap works out to $3,230 for our family of four — or $2.20 per person per day.

Since its inception in the early 1960s, the food-stamp program has become the nation’s strongest line of defense against hunger.

We must continue to keep it strong when we need it most.

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