Food stamp usage sticking

Food stamp usage sticking

November 25th, 2011 by Joan Garrett McClane in Business Around the Region

Eligibility Requirements

To receive food stamps, most able-bodied people between 16 and 59 years old must register for work, participate in the Employment & Training Program if offered, accept offers of employment and cannot quit a job.

Source: Tennessee Department of Human Services

Top Food Stamp States

The states with the greatest share of persons receiving food stamps in 2010 were:

  1. Oregon, 17.9 percent

  2. Tennessee, 17 percent

  3. Michigan, 16.9 percent

  4. Mississippi, 16.4 percent

  5. West Virginia, 15.4 percent

  6. Alabama, 14.3 percent

  7. Georgia 13.5 percent

Source: U.S. Bureau of Census

Food Stamps by County from 2010 to 2011:

Hamilton County - down .8 percent

Bledsoe County - up 2.2 percent

Bradley County - up .7 percent

Grundy County - down .4 percent

Source: Tennessee Department of Human Services

As Tennessee families paused to give thanks around the dinner table Thursday, one of every six households was getting help from Uncle Sam.

A new study found that Tennessee ranked second behind only Oregon in the share of households receiving food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Payments (SNAP), during 2010. The U.S. Bureau of Census reports that 45 states provided more federal help with groceries last year, swelling the number of U.S. households getting food stamps to 13.6 million.

Despite a decline in the past year, Hamilton County participation in the federal food stamp program has soared 32 percent since 2008 to 56,787 in October. Number dipped slightly from last year's total of 57,352, state data show.

"All states have experienced increases in SNAP participation over the past several years," said Nathalie Essex, legislative coordinator at the Tennessee Department of Human Services. "The increases have been driven by the downturn in the economy."

The new U.S. Census report shows that 17 percent of Tennesseans participated in the food stamp program in 2010, an increase from the 15.3 percent participation rate in 2009. Oregon had the highest percentage of food stamp recipients at 17.9 percent.

California, New Jersey and Wyoming have the lowest food stamp participation, the report showed.

More families are using food stamps as a safety valve when facing increased living costs and lower wages. In Tennessee, 24 percent of SNAP households have a household member who is working. Nationally, 40 percent of food stamp recipients have an employed family member, documents show.

The majority are still hoping to be absorbed into the workforce as the national economy continues to sputter along.

In metropolitan Chattanooga, 20,960 persons, or 7.9 percent of all workers, were unemployed last month even though October's jobless rate fell to the lowest level in nearly three years.

Since the economy began to tank four years ago, the size of the federal program has jumped by 70 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Tennessee, participation grew by 31 percent.

Essex said a statewide network of non-profit outreach providers have helped them find families that are eligible and begin them in the program.

"(They) are responsible for providing information, at the local community level, to insure that people are kept aware of the program and their potential eligibility for assistance," she said.

Fraud concerns

With more individuals on food stamps, eyeing fraud is a greater concern.

Charlie Hughes, executive director at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, which offers daily meals and services for the homeless, said some people have been known to sell their food stamps at a lower price than what they are worth for cash.

"What we tell them is you can't buy food stamps from someone else," he said. "You can't take someone else's food stamps."

In Oregon, earlier this year a grocery store owner was indicted for buying up food stamp at half the cost and cashing them in for their full amounts, court documents show. Last month, federal authorities also indicted 13 people at two grocery stores in Kansas, according to the Wichita Eagle.

If financial gains are more than $5,000, fraud could be punished by up to 20 years in prisons and a fine of $250,000, officials said.