Benjamin Lanka and Sheila McLaughlin report:
More than 200,000 Southwest Ohioans are on food stamps – including nearly 1 in 6 Hamilton County residents.
Data analyzed by CentralOhio.com and The Enquirer show in the four Southwest Ohio counties, those local food stamp benefits now cost taxpayers $30 million a month, triple the amount five years ago.
Federal spending has become a centerpiece in this year’s presidential campaign with programs from Medicare to Social Security being targeted.
•Database: Food stamps in Ohio
Even food stamps – now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – have become the target for reform as participation and costs have spiked due to the Great Recession.
Yet people working with those needing assistance said the help is critical for families struggling to find their next meal.
Nationally 1 out of every 7 Americans receives federal food assistance, according to August data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That is after a nearly 70 percent jump in participation since 2007, a spike closely mirrored in Ohio.
In June there were nearly 1.8 million Ohioans receiving food assistance – 15 percent of its total population – costing nearly a quarter of a billion dollars per month.
The story is no better in Southwestern Ohio, where Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties have seen tremendous leaps on their food assistance rolls in the past five years as more and more people lost their jobs to the recession.
Food assistance costs nearly $30 million a month – triple the spending from five years ago – in those four Southwest Ohio counties, where 210,288 currently receive the benefit. That federal money passes through the states down to the county governments which dole out the public benefits.
“The majority of people that get these food stamps really do use it to pay for food for their families, and it’s really needed by them. If we took it away it would be really tough for them,” said Brian Gregg, spokesman for the Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services.
‘A grocery bag short each week’
Hamilton County, where 1 in 6 people receive food assistance, experienced an 84 percent jump since 2007. Butler County saw a 70 percent increase. Clermont’s was 84 percent. Warren County, which has the smallest number of food assistance recipients at about 10,000, experienced an increase of 162 percent.
The economy is not the only reason for the increase, said Warren County Administrator Dave Gully.
The federal government relaxed eligibility requirements for the food program a few years ago.
“They didn’t have to consider a person’s assets. So if you own a million dollar house and drive a $50,000 car, if you don’t have any income, you can still qualify for food stamps,” he said.
The impact of the change became sorely evident a couple of years ago.
“We had a lady come in in a $50,000 car. I don’t know whether she was testing the system, but she was obviously wealthy and she owned a lot of property, and we had to issue food stamps to her because she qualified. She lost her job and didn’t have any income. The commissioners went nuts,” Gully said.
Social service officials don’t know what to expect from Washington after the election. But they said any reductions in food assistance spending would likely come about through changes in eligibility requirements. That could weed out people who take advantage of the system, Gully said.
But it also could affect families who really need help putting food on the table, said Jerome Kearns, director of Butler County Job and Family Services.
“There’s a new group of people who have come in to apply for food stamps. They have either lost their job as a result of closure of their employer or downsizing or have become underemployed. They are finding themselves a grocery bag short each week. The need is still there,” he said.
Changes that limit eligibility means more people will be looking for food through local food pantries, putting a greater burden on those nonprofit organizations.
“These folks are going to need to go somewhere,” Kearns said.
Who can get food stamps
Federal assistance for food has been a given in the United States since the start of World War II and has been a permanent safety net since the 1960s.
To qualify for the program, a person’s income generally must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line.
For a family of three, the poverty line in 2012 is $1,545 per month, meaning that family could earn up to $2,008 per month to qualify for the program. The program has not used actual stamps for years, instead using electronic debit cards.
Participation in the program has risen and fallen with the economy, and the recent Great Recession has seen a marked spike in people needing help paying for food.
Nationally, the number of people on food stamps jumped from 26.3 million in 2007 to 44.7 million people in 2011, costing $75.7 billion. To put in perspective, that is roughly 50 percent more than the federal government spends on its state department and foreign aid.
Food stamp assistance for a family varies based on its size and income. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $526. In Ohio, the average benefit for all families was $293.68.
The cost explosion for food stamps has caught the attention of numerous budget hawks looking to reduce the federal deficit.
The program is part of the federal farm bill, which despite its name spends 80 percent of its money on food assistance.
Congress has not yet passed its next five-year farm plan and appears to be looking to approve a temporary extension of current spending until after the election, said Marilyn Tomasi, vice president of marketing and communications for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank.
The Senate in June passed a plan that would reduce assistance by $4 billion over 10 years, and the House Agriculture Committee the following month backed a $16 billion cut to the program.