Food stamp use hits record

The number of Illinois households receiving food stamps has reached a record level, with almost 1.3 million people relying on the program to pay for daily staples such as milk, bread and eggs.

State officials on Thursday said there might be a link between the increase and constantly rising food, gas and energy prices. Aid groups warned there are many more in need.

“Families are running into financial difficulties,” said Marielle Sainvilus with the Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers the food stamp program. “We don’t have hard-core evidence to say it’s directly linked to the economy. But it makes sense because people are paying more for almost everything, but they aren’t being paid more.”

A total of 592,390 households across Illinois received food stamps in March. That’s up from 571,148 during March last year, according to the agency.

And while those receiving food stamps has steadily increased over the last five years, Sainvilus said the department is alarmed by what it considers a dramatic jump in demand in the last few months. Sainvilus couldn’t provide a month-by-month breakdown of distribution of food stamps for this year.

One of those who turned to the state for help is Akie Yajima, 65. About a year ago, Yajima quit her job as a waitress after she was diagnosed with cancer. It was too difficult to undergo treatment while working, she said Wednesday while at the Department of Human Services office in Hoffman Estates.

So a few months ago, Yajima applied for food stamps, but the $112 she receives each month doesn’t go far enough, she said.

Many people have turned to food pantries across the region, but providers are also struggling to keep the shelves stocked. Donations have dwindled as people try to rein in their spending, said Bob Dolgan with the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

That problem is compounded by an increased demand for food. Dolgan said the depository’s network of pantries saw a 12 percent increase in visits this February compared with last. Some people are lining up two hours before the doors open hoping to get a bag of food, he said.

“It’s pretty clear that things aren’t getting easier for people,” Dolgan said. “But we’re trying to do everything we can. If it’s not a bag of groceries, we’ll try to connect them to whatever benefits they may be eligible for to help them get food.”

Increasingly, that’s signing people up for food stamps. Dolgan said studies conducted by the food depository have found that from 30 percent to 40 percent of visitors to the group’s 600 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters across Cook County may be eligible for food stamps but haven’t applied.

In response, more and more pantries have teamed with the state to help those who may be eligible navigate through the system.

Evelyn Brodkin, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said the record number of food-stamp users is not a completely bad phenomenon.

While it may indicate people in Illinois are taking a hit because of the downturn in the national economy, it also suggests that many of the people who need help are getting it, Brodkin said.

“When times are tough, food stamps become a refuge for many people who otherwise would not, or have not, turned to the government for assistance,” she said. “It’s a reminder that economic shifts can spread vulnerability everywhere, and it’s a reminder of the crucial need for a social safety net.”

Still, Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition, said there are many who fall just beyond the eligibility requirements for help.

Doherty said her group is increasingly fielding calls from those who have been recently laid off or lost their homes. On paper, many of these people seem to be doing pretty well financially. But in their daily lives, parents are skipping meals to feed their children or choosing between money for gas and medicine.

“There are so many people living on the edge,” Doherty said. “It doesn’t take much to push them off.”

By Monique Garcia and Kristen Kridel
May 16, 2008

Source: Chicago Tribune

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