LIVINGSTON (AP) -- College graduates. Two-parent households. Elderly residents with growing medical bills. The working poor.
The face of Louisianians on food stamps has changed and broadened with the worsened economy in a state mired in poverty and repeatedly hit by disasters.
For hundreds of thousands in Louisiana this year, the cost of holiday meals will be at least partly covered by food stamps, which now come in the form of a benefits card that can be swiped. Nearly one in five Louisiana residents depends on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to buy groceries, among the highest percentages in a nation where food stamp rolls continue to rise.
“We’re seeing people with college degrees who’ve had to take minimum-wage jobs. We’re also seeing college graduates who have recently graduated but can’t find a job,” said Viki Dickerson, who oversees all state social services programs, including food stamps, in the Monroe area of northeast Louisiana. “And then the third thing we’re seeing is people whose unemployment benefits have run out and they’ve not found a job.”
Food stamp use has been on the rise in Louisiana for the past five years - and remains on track to grow further in the 2011-12 budget year, according to statistics provided by the state Department of Children and Family Services.
The jump in food stamp assistance has boosted the state’s dependence on the federal treasury, even as Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and Louisiana leaders complain about rising federal deficits and out-of-control spending. It also comes as Louisiana’s unemployment rate - now at 6.9 percent - remains below the national average of 8.6 percent, and as Jindal talks of a state economy outperforming the nation.
State social service workers say recipients include older residents unable to pay increased costs for medication, underemployed people not able to get jobs in their field of study, and families in which people are working but have seen incomes drop.
Melissa Massey, 29, of Livingston Parish near Baton Rouge, turned to food stamps in March to help fill in the gaps in her three-child household when her boyfriend lost his job.
Things seemed to be getting back on track. Her boyfriend got work as a delivery driver, and Massey was bringing in money as a baby sitter, reducing the amount the family received in food stamps. Then, another round of bad news hit.
“He just got laid off the other day,” Massey said recently. “Right before the holidays,” she sighed, outside the Livingston food stamp office after talking to a social services worker about her new money woes.
Louisiana remains among the top users of the federally funded food stamps program. More than 19 percent of the state’s 4.5 million residents receive SNAP benefits - a level found in only a handful of other states, including Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia.
By comparison, about 15 percent of people nationwide rely on food stamps, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 46 million people nationwide receive the food aid.
The five-parish area of the state stretching from Livingston to St. Tammany Parish has experienced one of the largest jumps in food stamp use over the past five years, 51 percent. That’s second only to the New Orleans area, where population dips and growths after Hurricane Katrina skew the figures.
Every region of the state has larger numbers of SNAP recipients than it did in 2006-07, with the Lake Charles and Houma/Thibodaux areas growing 44 percent and 39 percent respectively, according to state data. The smallest growth was in the Shreveport area, where food stamp use still rose 22 percent over the five-year period - though food stamp rolls are down slightly so far this fiscal year.
State officials say the recession and continuing high unemployment have put more residents on food stamps. But they also point out that Louisiana has successfully pushed to enroll more of those who qualified and hadn’t signed up by adding online applications and more community-based sites to apply.
Sammy Guillory, deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services, said Louisiana has reached more than 86 percent of those deemed to be eligible for food stamps based on their income levels, compared to a national average of 66 percent.
“It’s more accessible. It’s more private. There’s not that stigma of having to come into the office,” Dickerson said. “It’s more comfortable for (college graduates) through the online application.”
Louisiana has an average of more than 876,000 people on food stamps each month, with the average household receiving $312.32 on their benefits card, which can be swiped at stores like a debit card. The state paid out nearly $1.4 billion in food stamp aid during the last budget year, and is on track to top that this year.
In one-third of the households receiving food stamps, someone is working, Guillory said.
The SNAP dollars come entirely from the federal treasury, not from state coffers - and the eligibility criteria is set by the federal government.
While Hurricane Katrina caused a temporary dip in Louisiana’s food stamp rolls in the 2006-07 budget year, the state for three years now has surpassed the pre-Katrina level and continues to see more people added to the program.
Katherine Jarrell, 35, started getting food stamps in Louisiana last year, after moving back to the state from Ohio and being unable to find work. She’s living with family in the small southeast Louisiana town of Albany and continues to look for a job.
Jarrell recalled that her family relied on the assistance when she was growing up. Still, she doesn’t want to stay on food stamps over the long term.
“It’s been hard,” she said. “I like doing it on my own, paying for everything on my own, not worrying about where your next meal’s going to come from.”
Online: Louisiana food stamp data is available in the SNAP program section at: http://www.dss.state.la.us/index.cfm?mdpagebuilder&tmphome&nid198&pnid6&pid342; National food stamp data is available at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/snapmain.htm
© 2011 The Associated Press