LUMBERTON — Food stamps in Robeson County is a growing business.
Becky Morrow, director of the county’s Department of Social Services, says that currently more than 22,000 Robeson County households receive food stamps, totalling about $6 million a month. And, according to Morrow, with the state of the economy, there is no indication that the number of cases will decline anytime soon.
“Cases and the amount of money for food stamps just keeps increasing year after year,” she said.
Anthony Dial, DSS program director for economic services, says the rise in food stamps is unpredictable, but the trend is clear.
“It varies,” he said. “Some months we get a hundred new cases. Some months there are 200 new cases.”
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides assistance for purchasing food for low and no-income individuals living in the United States. It is a program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the individual states are responsible for distributing the benefits.
During the 2011 fiscal year, $76.7 billion in food stamps was distributed nationwide. As of March 2012, 46.4 million Americans were receiving on average $133.14 per month in benefits.
According to Morrow, the total amount of food stamps received by Robeson County residents in 2009 was $47.37 million; $58.10 million in $2010; and $65.18 million in 2011. It is estimated that during the year that $77,062,924 worth of food stamps will be paid out in Robeson County, the state’s 23rd most populous county, which would mark an increase of 85 percent since 2009.
People who qualify for food stamps use an EBT card, which looks like a credit card, to make purchases. They can buy a variety of foods, prepackaged, breads, dairy products, certain bottled beverages, ice, meats, vegetables, fish, poultry and more. Excluded items include hot foods, food intended to be eaten in the store, pet food, and alcohol and tobacco products.
DSS officials say one doesn’t have to look far to see why so many Roberson County residents are finding it necessary to seek assistance to purchase food. And the trend in growth is not just in Robeson County, but nationwide, they say.
“Look at the economy,” Dial said. “There’s high unemployment.”
According to June unemployment figures reported by the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division, Robeson County’s 13.9 percent unemployment rate was sixth highest in the state. Neighboring Scotland County had the highest unemployment rate in the state at 17.6 percent.
State Rep. Garland Pierce also points to the state of the economy, and contributes people out of work for the rise in food stamp recipients.
“Until people get back to work the number of people needing food stamps is going to increase,” Pierce said. “Today there are people needing food stamps that thought they would never need them. These people would rather work than receive the benefits.”
But other factors also come into play when considering the increase in food stamp recipients. Eligibility requirements for the benefits have been loosened. In the past couple of years the minimum financial eligibility requirements have been raised, and work restrictions have been reduced
The Obama stimulus act is credited by many as a key factor — along with the downturn in the nation’s economy — in the rising tide of individuals and families now eligible to receive food stamps. During Obama’s years as president, it has been made easier for childless jobless adults to qualify for the program.
Darlene Jacobs, executive director of the Robeson County Church and Community Center, says that a majority of those who come to her center’s food pantry for assistance are receiving food stamps.
“I feel comfortable saying that 60 to 65 percent receive some kind of food stamps,” she said. “This includes a lot of seniors who receive just $15 to $16 a month in stamps, to families of five who receive $1,000 a month.”
While food stamps increase the purchasing power of individuals and families in need, they also significantly boost the economy of local communities. The USDA has determined that for every food stamp dollar spent, $1.84 is created in local economic activity.
In Robeson County, food stamps can be considered a big business, Pierce said.
“It helps provide jobs and funds payrolls, he said. “If it wasn’t for food stamps, there would be $60 million less coming into the local economy.”
County Commissioner Raymond Cummings, who serves as chairman of the county’s Social Services board, did not return several calls from a reporter requesting his thoughts on the the increase in food stamps.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or email@example.com.