Food stamps boom in hard times

SEATTLE - Patrick Stickler was once flush with work at new high-rises in Seattle and Bellevue, but the carpenter fell fast and hard when the real estate market imploded.

The cupboard in Stickler’s Maple Valley motor home was barren and his car’s fuel tank was almost empty. So last month the 55-year-old went to a food bank, where an outreach worker persuaded him to sign up for food stamps – the first time, Stickler said, he’s ever been on public assistance.

“It’s kind of humbling, for darn sure,” Stickler said. “If you’re broke, you’re broke. You need to eat.”

In the past two years, amid one of the worst economies since the Great Depression, the number of people in Washington state receiving food stamps has soared by nearly 60 percent, about twice the national increase.

In October, a record 12.8 percent of the state’s population, about 855,000 people, were on food stamps, according to state officials.

More than 3,000 state residents per day are now enrolling in the “Basic Food” program, with no signs of a slowdown, officials say.

The dismal economy isn’t the only factor driving much of that growth.

Washington, like 27 other states, has expanded eligibility for food stamps. In the past year, the state has made an aggressive push to sign up more people in the federally funded program.

Newcomers to the program are discovering they can have a mortgage and car and still be eligible for benefits, which average about $219 a month per family. They can shop with food stamps at organic grocers, farmers markets and even Costco. Seattle’s Pike Place Market plans to post a list soon of merchants that accept food stamps.

And at the checkout line, participants use their benefits by swiping a debit card and entering a code, just like any other shopper.

“There’s people that have never thought about the program, never needed it and are finding themselves here,” said John Camp, who oversees the state’s food-assistance programs.

A food stamp debit card introduced a decade ago, he added, “really has helped destigmatize the program.”

Brooke McNeill, an outreach worker for WithinReach, sometimes still encounters skepticism when she tells people standing in line at food banks about the program.

“They say, ‘I don’t qualify because I make too much money,’” McNeill said. “A lot of times, I’ll say, ‘Are you sure? Things have changed.’”

Just as Congress was passing an emergency bailout for big banks in October 2008 to rescue the economy, Washington state followed other states and began expanding its food stamp program.

New eligibility rules allowed enrollment of people making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 130 percent. A family of four with a gross monthly income of up to $3,675 can qualify for benefits, generally for a year before having to reapply. Illegal immigrants aren’t eligible.

People also don’t have to exhaust their resources before applying. In the past, the program counted a car, a house and savings for retirement or college, in addition to income, when determining eligibility.

Food stamp eligibility on the national level was expanded initially in 1999 and again under the Bush administration, said Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Washington state began taking advantage of the changes in 2004, officials said. Families that apply for food stamps even if they’re not approved for the benefit can qualify for other public assistance, such as health insurance, child care, home telephone service and school lunches.

The federal government foots the bill for food stamp benefits and shares the cost with states for administration and outreach. Washington state spent $52 million over the past year on the program, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Proponents say there is an economic upside to the program: In Washington state, officials estimate the program generated nearly $1 billion in food purchases. As a result, every dollar in benefits spent creates $1.80 in economic activity in the community, according to a federal study.

But some critics believe the long-term growth in food stamp use isn’t a good thing for society or the economy.

“I don’t regret that food stamps is expanding during a recession,” said Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. “It should do that, but in the long term the welfare state is growing out of control.”

But when the economy improves, Rector says, the federal government should require food stamp recipients to work or prepare for work.

“This is a program that you basically give assistance to people who don’t work very much,” he said. “The way that you grow an economy over the long term is by giving people incentives to invest and create businesses and factories for people to work in.”

When the state decided last year to expand eligibility, it launched an outreach campaign with banners on buses, public service messages on the radio and a new Web site, Camp said.

The number of people eligible for food stamps also rose in April when the federal economic stimulus bill suspended the three-month limit on food stamp benefits for childless, unemployed adults through September 2010.

That could help Derek Estrada, 29, who recently visited a food bank in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood and learned about the food stamp program from WithinReach’s McNeill.

“I’m a healthy young man, but it’s hard to find work,” he said.

He left the food bank with three bags of staples including milk, cereal and fruit as well as a sweet potato pie, organic ground beef and diet iced tea.

“Just getting up and knowing there’s some food there, that would be cool,” Estrada said.

In the past year, enrollment has skyrocketed across the state.

Pierce County, the epicenter of home foreclosures in the state, saw a 40 percent increase in food stamps during that period. King County has seen a 39 percent increase.

The growth has surpassed the state’s predictions. The stigma of being on food stamps, it seems, also has faded because of the debit card.

Charlene Robbins, 40, of Maple Valley has been in and out of the food stamp program over the years.

The single mother of three, including twins with Down syndrome, says she stretched her dollars further by using food stamps to buy groceries and her own money to pay for items the program didn’t cover, such as toilet paper, diapers and laundry detergent.

She remembers when she used to have to tear out colored food stamp bills from a state-issued book.

“It was humiliating to go in the line and use those because everybody knew what they were,” she said. The debit card preserves recipients’ dignity by letting them blend in, she said.

But Stickler, the carpenter from Maple Valley, said each time he swipes his state-issued debit card to buy groceries it still bothers him a little.

“It’s just a reminder of my financial situation,” he said. Pausing a moment, he added, “Thank God I have that card.”