Turns out I wasn’t the only one to do a double-take over Minnesota food stamp stats in the New York Times the other day.
The numbers cropped up in a startling front-page story Sunday about six million Americans “Living on nothing but food stamps,” as The Times headline writer described it. Still in the throes of the Great Recession, the ongoing rise in food stamp use across the nation was unsurprising, but here were people living on a few hundred dollars a month and nada in cash income.
Hand to mouth, actually.
These six million folks reported to state authorities they’re unemployed and living without a pension check, welfare, unemployment insurance, child support or disability pay. And their numbers, according to a Times’ analysis, have soared by about 50 percent in the past two years.
But take a deep breath and read on. In Minnesota, their numbers have risen by a remarkable 87 percent in the last two years. That puts us in the top five states.
“Really stunning,” said an interested Andi Egbert, research associate with Wilder Research at the Amherst Wilder Foundation, which runs the online Compas program to keep track of the economic and social well-being of the seven-county metro area.
Getting by on food stamps
The number of people in Minnesota receiving food stamps who had no other income rose from 23,559 in 2007 to 43,997 in 2009 – an increase of 87 percent. Here’s how Minnesota’s food stamp cases break down:
Source: Minnesota Department of Human Services, Transition to Economic Stability Division
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Colleen Moriarity, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, and her staff were confused by the Minnesota numbers.
“They struck me as odd,” Moriarity said, adding that the federal food stamp program seems to be “one of the social safety nets that is really working, getting real money into people’s hands. But it’s supposed to be supplemental, not sustainable.”
So, what’s the story here? For answers, MinnPost turned to Chuck Johnson, assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services in the state Department of Human Services.
Johnson and I talked by phone.
MP: I was amazed to read that the numbers of Minnesotans who use food stamps but nothing else have increased almost 90 percent between June 2007 and June 2009. Are those numbers accurate?
CJ: Yes. The increase is about 87 percent. (See the numbers provided by Johnson and displayed in the MinnPost chart.) These are families and individuals with no other income. They have zero income. We don’t know exactly why this is or who these folks are. Obviously, the numbers are partly driven by the economy.
MP: How do you explain this increase for what the state calls a food support program and the federal government calls the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly called food stamps?
CJ: Overall there has been a large increase in the number of people now getting food stamps, about 30 percent since January 2009. Some of it is due to the economic stimulus bill and the federal government changing one of its eligibility categories in food stamps. Since l996, able-bodied adults with no dependents and not disabled were limited to receiving food stamps only three of 36 months unless they were meeting a work test, that is, working at least 20 hours a week. With the stimulus bill they basically opened that up and said [people] could continue to receive food stamps on an ongoing basis. Numbers shot up tremendously. The stimulus bill lifted the cap. Before, they received no cash and no food stamps; now they get the food stamps.
MP: What else might contribute to the rise in Minnesota’s numbers?
CJ: I don’t have a good explanation. Minnesota’s unemployment rate is lower than the national rate. It’s possible we’re doing a better job at outreach. We’ve been working on food stamp outreach for four years, five years.
MP: Talk about outreach. Can you give examples?
CJ: We’ve started working with community nonprofits, including food shelves. People going to food shelves get information on how to apply for food support programs and sometimes helping in filling out applications.
MP: Is this a federal program, no state money?
CJ: SNAP is 100 percent federally funded. In Minnesota it is called the food support program.
MP: I’m looking for more about who these people are. Are they people who have lost jobs but still have homes to live in and savings to live off of? Or are these people couch-hopping and living off the generosity of families and friends?
CJ: There is an asset test. They may live off savings, borrow money from families to help pay rent. Some could be families in public housing and they could probably manage a bit this way. They do have some portion of rent to pay and other things to pay for.
MP: New numbers released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show 386,838 Minnesotans on SNAP, up from 377,262 persons on food support in June. What does this tell us?
CJ: I think it tells us two things. One, that there is a certain amount of distress among families and individuals requiring them to use food stamps. The positive side of that is that people are accessing the program rather than going hungry. Again, the stimulus bill is also expanding eligibility.
MP: Is the food stamp program serving too much as a safety net rather than as a supplemental program?
CJ: In the Minnesota Family Investment Program our caseload is going up and forecasted to continue being up for the next couple years. I know this has not been the case in every state. We are getting more people. It is not going up nearly as fast as food stamps. Food stamps have broader eligibility. Food stamps can be for anyone; MFIP is for families with kids.
MP: Are there signs applications are slowing?
CJ: Over the last couple of months we have been keeping about the same trend line: going up. We don’t have the data to say we’re leveling off. County offices continue to be very busy.
Cynthia Boyd, MinnPost’s Community Sketchbook reporter, covers poverty, education, mental health and other topics related to social challenges facing communities. She can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com.