Food stamp numbers rise in state

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 2, 2007

DEMOPOLIS – The number of Alabama families receiving food stamps has grown by one-third in five years, but state officials say many more families could qualify if they would apply.

“We have noticed a slight increase in the number of food stamp applications over the last several months,” said John Marler, director of Marengo County’s Department of Human Resources.

According to Marler, in February, 94 people applied for food stamps. In July, 116 people applied for a food-assistance program.

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Overall, the number of households in Marengo County receiving benefits swelled slightly from 1,664 to 1,684.

Marler pointed out that food stamp recipient distribution tends to follow the general population of the area. In Marengo County, for instance, the Demopolis and Linden areas have the largest concentration of recipients.

“We haven’t been able to determine a specific reason for the increase,” said Marler. “Normally, applications increase during times of economic downturn or unemployment. But fortunately in Marengo County, these have not been significant factors.”

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in 2003 that 56 percent of Alabamians who were eligible received food stamps. The national rate that year also was 56 percent.

“Our goal is to get to 80 percent by 2010,” said Page Walley, commissioner of the state Department of Human Resources, which administers the federal food stamp program in Alabama.

In April, 214,414 Alabama households received food stamps, compared to 159,647 in April 2001, a 34.3 percent increase. Alabama households received $47.18 million in food stamps in April, compared to $30.1 million in April 2001, a 57 percent rise.

Numbers also have risen nationally, from 17.2 million recipients in 2000 to more than 25 million in 2005, The Birmingham News reported.

Joyce O’Neal, state director of the food stamps program for four year, said enrollment normally rises during economic slumps, but Alabama’s enrollment has grown even though unemployment rates are at the their lowest levels in years.

“The increase could be due to illness or inability to work or individuals moving back into the state,” said Marler. “Spikes in other areas of living expense such as extremely high utility bills and the price of gasoline might also influence the increase.”

She said hurricanes Ivan and Katrina party explain the recent growth.

The Department of Human Resources offered one-time food stamp enrollment to Ivan victims in 2004 and Katrina victims in 2005. More than 55,000 households signed up after each storm. O’Neal said some of those families realized they were eligible for long-term assistance and became part of the regular food stamp rolls.

Ironically, in Marengo County, food stamp issuance lost $1,000 from July 2005 to July 2006. It fell from $314,000 to $313,000.

“So while caseloads remained fairly constant with the slight increase,” said Marler. “The total issuance decreased. Increased work participation or disability determination might account for this.”

Still, O’Neal and Walley said too many people aren’t taking advantage of food stamps.

They will meet later this month with officials from the 10 Alabama counties that have the lowest participation rates to talk about ways to reach more people.

Lee County DHR Director Jan Burke said she was surprised to learn from a recent letter from the state office that her county ranked 66th out of 67 counties in the food stamps participation rate. According to the 2003 estimate, only 33 percent of those eligible in the county were receiving food stamps.

Since getting the letter, Burke said she has delivered stacks of food stamps applications to food banks and other agencies that serve low-income people, as well as senior centers.

“The elderly, to me, are the ones who are least ready to ask for assistance,” Burke said.

“They’re very proud, and they’ve worked all their lives, and they don’t want to be in a position to ask for a handout.”

In Alabama, only 5 percent of food stamp recipients are 60 or older. Officials don’t think that percentage reflects the need.

“I think we have a lot of people in this state just struggling by on what they could make when they could receive help,” O’Neal said.

People apply for food stamps through county DHR offices. An interview is required.

Many families can qualify for food stamps even if the head of household works.

A family of four can be eligible with a gross income of up to $2,100 a month, which is 30 percent above the federal poverty guideline.

A recipient generally can’t have more than $2,000 in a cash account, or $3,000 if they are 60 or older.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.