Local food stamp dependence soars as Congress battles over program's future

News-DemocratAugust 3, 2013 

Lucille Higginbottom wheels her janitor's cart into the men's room on the second floor of the St. Clair County Public Building in Belleville.

It's early evening, and the building is nearly empty. With a spray bottle and a wet towel, Higginbottom attacks the bathroom sink and counter. She wipes hard and methodically, hard enough that her forearm muscles crease and uncrease.

Higginbottom, 55, said she enjoys her job -- "My boss is cool" -- even if it's part time and pays the minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. Then she recited her work history across the metro-east: stints at Belleville Shoe Co., Maxwell's Restaurant, civilian jobs at Scott Air Force Base.

"I've worked all over, believe me," she chuckled. "Now I'm ready to get retired."

A few days before, Higginbottom sat in the foyer of the nearby Community Interfaith Food Pantry, waiting for her family's monthly allotment of donated milk, eggs and other items.

On food stamps for the past two years, Higginbottom said the $247 that the federal entitlement program loads onto her debit card for her husband, two sons and herself is still not enough to get them through the entire month. By the third week of the month, the debit card has been used up, she said.

"We're hurting every day. We try to pay our bills and try to keep stuff up, but it's not enough," she said. "We thank God for this place."

Higginbottom represents the growing legion of employed metro-east residents who each month rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or S.N.A.P. (the official name for food stamps) to feed their families.

The number of residents of St. Clair County -- which covers some of the state's poorest ZIP codes -- depending on S.N.A.P. surged 52 percent -- from 33,403 in 2003, to nearly 51,000 in 2013, for a food stamp participation rate of nearly 19 percent, Illinois Department of Human Services figures show.

In Madison County, the S.N.A.P. participation has grown by nearly 50 percent over the last decade -- from 21,376 in 2003 to 42,372 in 2013, for a county participation rate of nearly 16 percent, state figures show.

Meanwhile, this year Illinois reported the largest percentage increase -- 10.5 percent -- in S.N.A.P. participation of any state.

More than 2.02 million Illinois residents -- a record -- are receiving food stamps, for a participation rate of 15.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Experts blame the record number of food stamp recipients in the metro-east and Illinois, as well as the nation at large, on a mix of factors, including the national recession that began in 2008, a sluggish and uneven recovery and the proliferation of low-wage service jobs that replaced blue collar manufacturing jobs in recent years.

"Many of these people are working, but they're not making the kind of money that would really move them out of poverty," said Linda Baker, an analyst at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

The low-wage service jobs that have grown in recent years include hospital nurses' aides, nursing home attendants and fast food workers, said Baker, who served as director of the Illinois Department of Human Services in the 1990s.

"Clearly many people are receiving food stamps to substitute for the earnings that they are not getting in their employment," she said.

Two other factors appear at work, according to David Yepsen, the policy institute's executive director.

Government agencies are doing a better job promoting food stamp programs to eligible groups, who in turn are more willing to apply for and accept S.N.A.P. benefits, Yepsen said.

"I think the Recession of 2008 took away some of the stigma from food stamps," he said, pointing out that many people in rural areas had spurned food stamps because of pride.

"I think a lot of that went away," he said. "The recent hard times were some of the worst since the Great Depression. People were in desperate need. Some of that stigma went away."

Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, a Chicago-based free-market think tank, blamed a different culprit: bad leadership in Springfield that has saddled Illinois with a poor credit rating and higher taxes, while failing to deal with the state's pension crisis.

As a result, employers are fleeing the state -- and taking jobs with them, according to Dabrowski.

"Companies are afraid to invest in Illinois," he said. "We support a government that is spending more, and borrowing more and taxing more. The best way to get people off food stamps is to get them jobs."

Food stamp program growth surges

In Washington, D.C., the debate over how to stem the growth of the food stamp program has so far derailed chances for a long-term farm bill, the current version of which expires in September, much to the chagrin of the agriculture community.

The S.N.A.P. program cost $78.4 billion this year, up from $20.6 billion in 2002.

S.N.A.P.'s rapid growth has turned the it into an ideological battleground, leading conservative Republicans in the U.S. House to call for deep cuts in a program that they decry as rife with abuse and waste and that fosters a culture of dependence on hand-outs.

Enrollment in S.N.A.P. nationwide has surged by 70 percent since 2008, to almost 48 million people as of December 2012, or 15 percent of the American population. This compares to a decade before, when just 8 percent of Americans were on food stamps.

To trim the program's runaway growth, the GOP-led U.S. House passed a bill in May that contained a series of restrictions that would have removed 2 million Americans from food stamp rolls, saving an estimated $24 billion over five years. This compares to the $4 billion in savings contained in the bill the Democratic-led Senate passed this spring.

But the House bill failed because conservative House Republicans wanted deeper food stamp cuts, while House Democrats thought the proposed cuts went too far.

In response, the GOP-led U.S. House in mid-July narrowly passed a highly partisan measure that removed the food stamp component -- which accounts for 80 percent of the Agriculture Department budget -- from the farm bill, breaking with congressional practice for more than 40 years.

If conservative Republicans make good on promises to make deep cuts in S.N.A.P., the stakes could hardly be higher for families in the metro-east and across Southern Illinois, which encompasses some of the state's poorest counties, according to Baker.

"I think it would be devastating to many of these families," she said. "Again, these are the working poor."

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, acknowledged that S.N.A.P. is not immune to fraud and waste.

"But the radical size of the cuts proposed by the far rightwing were not palatable to the vast majority of Congress, and I know they're not going to get through the Senate," Enyart said.

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, blamed the increase in the U.S. Agriculture Department budget on the fact the farm bill traditionally combined agriculture production provisions -- such as crop insurance -- with food stamps.

"It continues to grow because both sides see the benefit of a growing program by joining them together," Shimkus said.

Shimkus called the food stamp program "a lifesaver" for some families. Even so, he said he favors legislation to require recipients to look for jobs as condition for receiving food aid.

"What's the best way to remove people from the food stamp rolls?" Shimkus said. "Force them to find a job or at least look for one. So the debate is have them look, hopefully, they find, and they don't apply to begin with."

'You're not talking about welfare queens'

But finding a job is out of the question for some food stamp recipients, such as Emile Zierenberg, a Vietnam veteran from Caseyville.

Zierenberg, 60, suffers from chronic hardening of the arteries. Doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have implanted 10 stents throughout his body, but his circulation remains poor.

Nonetheless, once a month Zierenberg and his wife Carol walk the half-mile from their trailer to the Caseyville United Methodist Church, where they load up a cart with meat, bread and other items from the church food pantry.

Up until recently, the Zierenbergs were receiving $145 per month in food stamp aid apiece. But then the state Human Services Department sent them letters claiming they each owed the state $7,000 apiece on the grounds they had been overpaid during a two-year period when they lived apart.

Now Emile Zierenberg gets only $3 a month in food stamps, while his wife, a cancer survivor, has been cut off entirely.

"How am I supposed to feed myself and my wife on $3 a month?" Zierenberg asked. "I can't do it."

At this point no one is making any bets on how the impasse over the future of the food stamp program will be resolved.

House conservatives are holding firm on their insistence that food stamps remain out of the farm bill, while President Barack Obama has said he would veto any measure that does not contain the food aid program.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, voted for the measure to remove food stamps from the farm bill on the grounds "that's the way we were going to get a farm bill passed, and that's what the agricultural economy in central and Southern Illinois needs."

Davis said he hopes that "we can get the food and nutrition programs back together with the ag side and really made some good common-sense reforms."

Enyart said he believed the S.N.A.P. program will "scale back naturally" as the economy and job market improve.

Enyart noted that about 100,000 of the 700,000 people in the 12 counties comprising the 12th U.S. House District live below the income level to qualify for food stamps, which is an annual income of less than $31,321 for a family of four.

"I think what troubles me is the demonization of poor people," Enyart said. "You're not talking about welfare queens. You're talking about senior citizens, you're talking about veterans, you're talking about children ... The need is there."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.


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