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The Morning Call (KRTBN)

Food Stamp Usage On The Rise In Allentown, Pa., Area

By Josh Drobnyk, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

29 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. All rights reserved.

Dec. 29--For Maria Rivera, it was an obvious choice: Try to cope alone on a minimum-wage job, or get some assistance to help feed her and her 2-year-old son.

So, soon after arriving in Bethlehem from Puerto Rico in 2002, Rivera signed up for food stamps. At the beginning of every month, $256 is deposited on a debit card that Rivera can spend on pretty much any food item.

"It helps a lot," said the 26-year-old Rivera, holding a birthday cake on a recent visit to Valley Farm Market grocery store in Bethlehem, her son Hector, now 4, at her side. "If it weren't for, maybe I couldn't buy my son some of the stuff he likes a lot."

Thousands of other Lehigh Valley residents have reached similar conclusions over the past four years, driving up local food stamp usage faster than state and national trends.

Between July 2000 and November 2004, the number of people in Lehigh and Northampton counties receiving food stamps jumped 75 percent, from 21,127 to 36,951, according to the state Public Welfare Department.

Statewide, the number jumped 33 percent to about 997,000 during roughly the same period. And nationwide, the food stamp rolls have swelled 39 percent since 2000, to 23.9 million.

Local growth doesn't appear to be letting up. Between January and November, 5,096 people signed up for food stamps in Lehigh and Northampton counties. In fact, combined food stamp rolls in the two counties increased every month during the year.

DPW officials and poverty researchers point to the struggling economy, improved access to the program and successful outreach efforts as reasons for the increase nationwide.

In the Lehigh Valley, food stamps officials and advocates for the poor attribute the greater need to an increasing poverty rate and influx of people from other states.

"Clearly the whole phenomenon of working but still being poor is serious," said Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. "Allentown has been a magnet for lower-income people."

The number of people living in poverty in the Lehigh Valley -- defined for a single-person household as earning below $9,310 a year-- has increased faster than the state or national average. In Lehigh and Northampton counties, the number grew 11 and 12 percent respectively between 2000 and 2002, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Statewide, the increase was 7 percent, and nationwide the jump was 9 percent.

Also, local population growth has outpaced the state's. Lehigh and Northampton county's combined population grew an estimated 3.3 percent between 2000 and 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During the same period, Pennsylvania's population is estimated to have increased 0.7 percent.

Caseworkers and supervisors at Lehigh and Northampton county assistance offices have witnessed the increase in food stamp usage firsthand. And while the counties don't keep a database of where enrollees come from, the assistance office employees interviewed for this story said people moving from other states have played a significant role in boosting food stamp participation.

"We are getting inundated with people from out of state, that is for sure," said Joseph Hetzel, a caseworker supervisor in the Northampton County assistance office.

His boss, Bob Kozlowski, echoed Hetzel's comments. "People are constantly coming in -- from Puerto Rico, New Jersey and New York," Kozlowski said.

The Lehigh County assistance office has experienced a similar trend, according to manager Richard Mengel. "We hear folks from large metropolitan areas telling us that they have been told by relatives that this is a nice, safer area to live, and the cost of living is cheaper," Mengel said, noting people are coming to his office who've recently moved from New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico.

Still, it's clear not everyone signing up for the program is new to the area.

Kathy Potter, 39, of Easton, was forced to get help after divorcing in 2002.

"I never dreamed when I got food stamps that I would be on them as long as I have," said Potter, who gets $238 a month to help feed her and her two children, 3 and 16.

Potter cleans homes and is trying to start a dry-cleaning business, but times are tough and "money is a struggle," she said. She relied on her husband for income and was ill-prepared financially when they split.

"It's like, now I have to learn how to live," she said. "This is horrible."

Why the increase nationwide?

Several factors appear to be responsible for increased use of food stamps nationwide, with the economy the most apparent.

Food stamp participation has traditionally fallen and grown according to the economy's strength. Nationwide during the booming 1990s, the number of people getting stamps decreased steadily from a maximum of 27 million people in 1994 to a low of 18 million people in 1999. Since 2000, the national numbers have jumped roughly 10 percent every year.

Lehigh Valley unemployment numbers reflect the economic malaise. The local rate jumped from 3.6 percent in mid-2000 to nearly 6 percent by 2002, where it remains, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Non-economic factors also have prompted increased food-stamp usage.

A series of laws, starting with the welfare reform bill in 1996, changed policies initially decreased and then restored food stamp eligibility to legal immigrants. Some people who left the program returned.

Also, many people incorrectly assumed a five-year benefit limit built into the welfare reform law applied to food stamps, leading them to leave the program, said Randy Russo, senior policy analyst with the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit in Washington D.C. After realizing that wasn't the case, they re-enrolled, Russo said, driving numbers up.

Other laws enacted since 2002 have made it easier for people to sign up for and stay in the food stamp program. In Pennsylvania, participants must meet with a caseworker annually, as opposed to every three months in some instances under the old rules, to discuss their living and work situations, according to Jennifer Watson, a Northampton County caseworker supervisor.

Also, participants who are working must file a report every six months, compared to monthly previously.

"It was a lot of work if you were only getting $40-a-month, and some clients just didn't think it was worth it," Watson said. "Now, it is a little more customer-friendly."

The average food stamp benefit is $86 per month per person. The income eligibility limit for a single person is $1,009 a month; the income limit for a family of four is $2,043 a month.

Additionally, applying for food stamps has become easier. Applications now are available online and agencies can help prospective recipients enroll -- all part of an effort spearheaded early in the decade by Congress and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to boost the program's participation. According to the department, the nationwide participation rate among eligible persons was 54 percent in 2002, the most recent available data. The department has provided nearly $10 million in outreach grants to agencies throughout the country in the past three years to boost that number.

The cost to federal taxpayers is expected to be $35 billion next year.

Locally, the Hispanic American Organization of Allentown was awarded a state grant and is responsible for such outreach. Milagros Vizcaino, the agency's food stamp consultant for the past seven months, said she visits grocery stores and restaurants daily and signs up about 30 households for food stamps every month.

"A lot of people think they are not eligible," Vizcaino said. "When they see that they are, they are surprised."

Getting food stamps isn't the same experience it once was. Gone are the days when people ripped their stamps out of coupon books at the check-out line. Now, thanks to a federal law passed in the 1990s, participants use debit cards tied to automatic deposits.

Although officials say the change has reduced the stigma associated with the program, it isn't necessarily a factor in the decision to enroll.

Andrea Hosage, 22, signed up for stamps after returning to Allentown from Philadelphia in July. She was six months pregnant and facing the prospect of prolonged unemployment while she cared for a small infant. The father of her now 3-month-old son is not around to help. She gets $274 deposited on her food stamp debit card every month.

"I was having a fit," Hosage said. "I was like, 'How am I supposed to help provide for this home, when I can't work now?' I can't stand not working, but right now I don't really have a choice."

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