The nationwide economic slowdown is producing an opposite effect for state agencies dispensing food assistance.
Tennessee’s Department of Human Services is handing out a record number of food stamps this winter. In January, the most recent month for which data is available, 901,834 Tennesseans — or nearly one of every six residents — sought government help to buy groceries. Food stamp participation in the month was up 3.6 percent from a year ago and included 40,043 residents in Hamilton County.
“It’s strictly the economy,” said Richard Dobbs, director of policy for Tennessee’s food stamp program. “The number in poverty in the state continues to increase, and that means more people are coming to our offices for assistance.”
Last year, Tennessee distributed more than $1 billion in food stamps from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Right now, we’re averaging about $91 million in benefits a month,” Mr. Dobbs said.
With the decline of manufacturing jobs and an increase in home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies, the number of people who receive food stamps across Tennessee has jumped by more than 75 percent since the last recession in 2001. USDA rules allow states to provide food stamps to families with income up to 30 percent above the poverty rate. For a family of four, food stamp assistance is available for those with a combined net income of $1,721 a month, or $20,652 a year, or less.
As a comparatively lowincome state, Tennessee historically has had an above-average use of food stamps, Mr. Dobbs said. Nationwide, about one of every 11 people receives food stamps, according to USDA figures.
Tanasha Mitchell, a 24-yearold resident of College Hill Courts, is typical of many Tennesseans who have received food stamps for years, both as a child and a mother. With four children ages 1 to 6, Ms. Mitchell said her monthly food stamp check of $443 helps supplement the income she makes working as a housekeeper at Holiday Inn.
“It helps me to feed everyone, so I think it’s great,” she said.
Harry M. Johnson, Sr., executive director of the Bradley-Cleveland Community Services Agency and president of the Tennessee Association of Community Action, said the current economy is bringing a record number of people to social service agencies asking for help.
“The economy is very critical at this time, and the slowdown definitely hits poor people first,” Mr. Johnson said. “If you look at all of the costs that have escalated — heating fuel, gasoline and food — those hit the poor disproportionately the hardest. We hope things will change very soon.”
ON THE WEB
Tennessee Department of Human Services: www.state.tn.us/humanserv/