Number of food stamp recipients increases
Shelia Weaver never imagined she'd need food stamps.
But after a series of medical problems and a divorce, Weaver, 48, of Moon, has relied on food stamps for two years to keep her and her 12-year-old son, Chris, fed.
"I just couldn't keep up with everything, and I ended up having to apply for food stamps," she said. "I guess it's a classic story."
The "classic story" has many other characters. After declining for seven years, the number of people receiving food stamps has risen sharply nationally, statewide and in the Pittsburgh region since 2000.
Nationwide, food stamp rolls have increased by nearly 24 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Pennsylvania, 917,377 individuals received food stamps valued at $900 million in 2003-04, up about 22 percent from 2000-01.
The percentage is higher in the area including Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The number of people receiving food stamps rose by about 29 percent from 2000 to 2004, according to data from the state Department of Welfare.
State and federal officials attribute the increase to changes in the law that restored the benefit to those who lost it in the welfare reform efforts of the mid-1990s, and because of efforts to ensure those who qualify for food stamps apply.
"This notion that welfare as we know it ended was one of the contributing factors to the big caseload declines we see in the 1996, 1997 and 1998 period," said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center, a research and public policy center that serves as the hub of an anti-hunger network.
Many of those who lost cash assistance because of welfare reform also wrongfully lost food stamps, Vollinger said.
"It was a while before advocates and offices realized there was a spillover effect," she said. "We were missing a significant number of people."
The 2002 Farm Bill increased the pool of eligible people by restoring food stamp eligibility to some legal immigrants, USDA spokeswoman Suanne Buggy said. The legislation also allowed states to make applying for benefits easier.
A change in 2000 made 2.5 million more people eligible nationwide by increasing the value of cars recipients are allowed to have. Before the change, a $4,500 limit set in the 1970s had risen to only $4,650 by 2000, Vollinger said. The change allowed those on welfare to have decent cars to get to and from work without fear of losing food stamps because of the car's value.
In Pennsylvania, at least one vehicle is excluded when determining food-stamp eligibility. The state's maximum food stamp benefits range from $149 a month for a one-person household to $1,122 a month for a 10-person household.
According to the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center, 1.3 million of the state's 12.4 million residents are eligible for food stamps based on income. The USDA said 67.1 percent of low-income Pennsylvanians received food stamps in 2003, above the national rate of 61.5 percent.
"Pennsylvania may be doing a better job than other states, but there are still a serious number of people who are in need and are eligible and are not getting food stamps," Vollinger said.
Ed Zogby, director of policy development for the office of income maintenance at the state Department of Public Welfare, said Pennsylvania has removed barriers to receiving food stamps. In some states, Vollinger said, applications ran 20 to 30 pages. Pennsylvania's is eight pages and available on the Internet, as well as at local offices.
To simplify the program, Pennsylvania now requires recipients to report earnings once every six months, instead of every month, Zogby said. To help people moving from welfare to work, recipients no longer lose food stamp benefits when they leave the welfare rolls; now, they can continue receiving food stamps for five months.
To let more people know about the food stamp program, a media campaign including radio spots in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will air this year, Buggy said.
"We want to make sure everyone who is eligible knows about the program and how to access benefits," she said.
Weaver, who also has three adult sons, said she learned she could qualify for food stamps by knowing others using them. Food stamps no longer come as paper coupons but as an electronic benefit transfer card similar to a debit card.
"I still shop in the same stores. The access card looks like any other ATM bank card. People wouldn't necessarily know you're using food stamps," Weaver said.
Weaver had been a certified nursing aide at Sewickley Valley Hospital until injuring her knee and subsequently losing her job. She said she once owned the building at Mooncrest housing complex where she lives and rented out its other units. Because of her divorce and medical expenses, she had to sell the building and move to another unit in the same building, she said.
She gets $254 worth of food stamps per month. She said she clips coupons and shops at variety of stores to get the best deals.
Weaver, who works part-time as a teacher's aide for the Mooncrest after-school program, said she hopes to find a better job and get off food stamps within a year. Her current job pays $6.50 an hour for a maximum of 17 1/2 hours a week.
But in the meantime, "It's been a real help knowing I can at least buy food for my son."
Food stamp eligibility
To enroll for food stamp benefits and other Pennsylvania social services, visit www.compass.state.pa.us . Eligibility requirements include: