Number of Louisiana households receiving food stamps at its highest ever — and poised to increase _lowres

Photo provided by dcfs.la.gov -- Louisiana Puschase Automated Benefit Card

While the rest of the nation has fewer families on food stamps, Louisiana has more households on the rolls than ever before, and that number is poised to increase further.

Some of the increases have been dramatic: about 37 percent more cases in Jefferson Parish; 26 percent more in St. Martin; 13.5 percent more in Lafayette; and 90 percent more in Cameron Parish, according to Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services’ comparisons that show how many households received benefits in April 2015 and the number in April 2016.

Statewide, the number of cases increased about 9 percent over the 12-month period. That means almost 19 percent of the state’s 4.6 million people participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the federally paid food stamp program is called.

But a recent Gallup poll found that 1 in 5 Louisiana residents — 21.4 percent — didn’t have enough money for food at some time during the past 12 months. That’s the second highest in the country, where the average is 15 percent.

Part of the rise has to do with unemployment, part with a better sign-up system. But mostly it’s a combination of Louisiana’s poor economic conditions coupled with a large workforce that earns less, on average, than the rest of the nation.

“It’s a mix of more public awareness, maybe better administration, but the underlying reason is the state of the economy,” said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a Baton Rouge-based group that advocates government policies on behalf of low- and middle-income persons.

Oil prices have fallen from $111 per barrel in June 2014 to a six-year low of $37 in December 2015, causing Louisiana businesses that depend on the energy sector to slow production and delay investment. The slump aggravates a state budget already looking at significant deficits. Louisiana’s energy sector lost 10,000 jobs.

“We talk about hits to state revenues, but behind those numbers are people who have lost jobs or aren’t working as many hours as they were before,” Moller said.

Given that wages in Louisiana are so low, particularly in outlying parishes, workers already are closer to the eligibility levels than workers in other states, said Loyola University New Orleans professor Jeanie Donovan, an economic policy specialist at Loyola’s Jesuit Social Research Institute.

“People who are working part time can’t find full-time work, and people who are working at minimum wage tend to be the persons on SNAP,” Donovan said.

Since the 1990s, when welfare was reformed on a federal level, there is little assistance available. “It really is the only program that people can turn to when they find themselves in a situation they didn’t anticipate,” Donovan said.

And the data indicates that those who are receiving food stamps are not lazy, as they are often portrayed. Donovan said the statistics show the average recipient is on the rolls for about nine months.

“That’s about how long it takes for a person to work through their crisis,” she said.

State statistics show that 28.4 percent of the households receiving food stamp benefits in Louisiana have at least one member who is working.

From her office in suburban Baton Rouge, Jean Guinta is in charge of overseeing the food stamp program in the River Parishes and parts of coastal Louisiana, including the hard-hit Lafourche, which saw a 21.7 percent increase in cases over the past year.

Her 32 staffers report that the biggest uptick of the 1,218 more households added during the past year happened when two shipyards laid off workers.

Her office is certifying and rechecking eligibility with about 25 percent fewer state workers than in 2008. But the procedures they now use, which includes online applications and phone interviews, is more efficient, she said.

Generally for a family of four to qualify, total household income must be below $2,628 monthly, or $31,536 annually, and $2,021 monthly after expenses such as rent are deducted. People not legally in the country, most students, people convicted of drug-related felonies and those who fail to comply with work registration requirements are generally ineligible.

Typically, food stamp benefits are distributed electronically between the first and 15th days of each month. Recipients are allowed to buy only foodstuffs and cannot purchase items like beer, cigarettes, pet food and soap.

The Food Research and Action Center, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on hunger issues, reports that nationally, the annual food stamps participation dropped by nearly 1.3 million to 44.4 million participants — the lowest level in five years.

That’s largely linked to the better economy on the national level, said Ellen Vollinger, theFood Research and Action Center’s legal director.

The handful of states that have shown increases has gone up for other reasons. Massachusetts had issues with its sign-up system that have been worked out. California and Nevada had unusually low participation rates but are now qualifying more recipients, she said.

Louisiana’s numbers appear higher now than even back in 2008 — the last spike in the food stamp caseload, said Sammy Guillory, the deputy assistant secretary at the state Department of Children and Family Services.

And those numbers are likely to go up because the state’s most recent statistics available show only the start of federal waivers authorities granted following flooding earlier this year.

The impact of the emergency waiver is that it freezes “redeterminations.” Food stamps participants have to reapply after six months, and generally, tens of thousands would cycle off the program. At the same time, more people find themselves out of work or with reduced hours after a disaster, so the number of applications goes up.

Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said the agency serves vulnerable people during a time of crisis.

It’s critical that we are available when they need us,” she said. “Louisianans are hard-working people, and unfortunately, many of them are only one small setback from a major financial disaster.”

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