KHI News Service

Recessions lead to explosion in food stamp costs

By Phil Cauthon | July 08, 2013

Mellissa Diehl, Osage resident and food stamp beneficiary. Diehl also receives disability assistance following an Aug. 12, 1990, accident at an Illinois auto parts store where she had been the accountant and payroll manager. The accident was caused by a newly installed bathroom light switch which was improperly grounded, leading to the electrocution of Diehl, then 40 years old. The accident — for which she said she received no payment from workers' compensation, only payment of her current hospital bills — left her partially immobilized for 17 years and led to many other complications, including: spinal damage, the nearly simultaneous loss of all of her teeth in 1995, and persisting severe headaches caused by computer screens and fluorescent lights. Diehl said Tilton's grocery is much cheaper than the Wal-mart in nearby Emporia because they stock past-expiration produce and goods, damaged-packaging items and other cheaper foodstuffs.

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Five years ago, 26.3 million low-income Americans relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Program, or SNAP. Today, enrollment in the food stamp program tops 46.6 million, including about 316,200 Kansans.

In fiscal 2012, the federal government spent more than $450 million in Kansas for the program, more than double the $190 million it spent in fiscal 2007. Nationally, the program's cost has also doubled in five years — from about $33.2 billion in 2007 to more than $78.4 billion in 2012.

The growth is a direct result of the recent recession and therefore the program is doing what it was intended to do: help families in hard times, say those who oppose cuts to SNAP.

Joanna Sebelien of Harvesters Community Food Network, which supplies food banks in 26 Kansas counties, said the recession left about 400,000 Kansans “food insecure.”

"There are stereotypes about who's getting what and who deserves what. But people can apply for SNAP when they're out of a job. So in the current economy, when so many people are out of jobs, more and more people became eligible for SNAP," Sebelien said. "We know that 35 percent of the people we serve (at the food banks) are working. They are the working poor, and many of them are eligible for SNAP. You are eligible for SNAP if you are at 130 percent of poverty — many people are at that level and have jobs.”

Of all households receiving SNAP nationally in 2004, 58 percent were working and 82 percent were employed the year before or the year after they received food stamps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

A more recent estimate by SNAP To Health indicates at least 40 percent of current SNAP households have employment income.

More than three-quarters of SNAP benefits go to households with young children, 16 percent to households with disabled persons, and 9 percent to households with senior citizens.

Mellissa Diehl is an Osage resident and food stamp beneficiary. Diehl travels with her two adult autistic children, whom she supports, 30 miles to Topeka once a month in order to stretch the $710 monthly household income. The family shops at several area discount stores, such as the Salvation Army Thrift Stores and Tilton's grocery.

The 63-year-old Diehl said life was hard but that at least with food stamps she and her children usually do not go hungry.

“If it wasn’t for food stamps, I just wouldn’t make it,” she said

Diehl said she was disabled as the result of a 1990 workplace injury that among other things damaged her spine.

Related stories

Food stamp work requirements complicate Farm Bill passage

Brownback administration asks task force to endorse plan for promoting work over public assistance

Roberts' proposal to cut SNAP fails in U.S. Senate

→ Report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: The Relationship Between SNAP and Work Among Low-Income Households

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