County braces for cut in food stamps

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County braces for cut in food stamps

LOCAL IMPACT: GOVERNMENT SPENDING

Thousands of poor families living in southwest Ohio will face tougher decisions on how to spend their money at the grocery store this month because of changes to a federal assistance program.

Earlier this year, Congress let a provision in the federal stimulus bill expire which has led to a reduction, starting this month, in the amount of benefits families who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP.

For a family of four living in Butler County who, on average, receives $632 every month, the cuts mean $36 less in benefits starting Nov. 1.

That cut is forcing Christina Carr, a 29-year-old Hamilton wife and mother of two toddlers who relies on roughly $400 she gets every month through SNAP, to look at her grocery bill even closer. Carr said she understands why Congress let cuts to SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps, expire — she wants representatives to make fiscally responsible decisions with taxpayer dollars — but less money means less food for her and her family.

“We’re able to pay most of our grocery bills but any decrease is, obviously, going to affect us,” said Carr, whose husband works at a local grocery store. “Every penny counts.”

Butler County spends $6 million a month, seven times more than it spent a decade ago, distributing benefits for food stamps to residents.

Earlier this year, Gov. John Kasich re-introduced a mandate that roughly 134,000 able-bodied adults work, job train or volunteer 20 hours a week to receive food stamp benefits. That requirement, along with Congressional cuts to the program, has officials from the Ohio Association of Foodbanks estimating that Butler County will distribute $12 million less in food stamp benefits. In Warren County, the association predicts $1.5 million less will be spent on the benefits.

State officials, however, said they’re spending more on the program through $8 million they’re giving counties to use for training programs geared toward SNAP recipients, Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, said.

“It is not now, and it has never been our intent, to remove people from the program,” Johnson said.

‘A constant struggle’

Those accountability and cost-cutting measures will likely drive more people to the area’s food pantries, said Tina Osso, the director for Shared Harvest Foodbank in Fairfield.

Despite the impending holiday season, Osso said many local charities are focusing less on raising money for families to host traditional, holiday meals. Instead, charities are bracing for the impact of cuts to the food stamp program and are attempting to stock food pantries for the long-term to support the area’s neediest families who are now getting less from federal food assistance programs.

“We’re expecting an increase in requests for help … I sent an advisory out to our food pantry, soup kitchens and shelters to prepare,” Osso said Thursday. “So, do you put your resources into making sure people have a feast for the holidays, or do you put your resources into making sure they can eat all of the days after?”

Carr, who said she shops at some of the local food pantries, said the charities filled up quickly when she visited one last month.

“It was packed. There was an hour-long wait,” Carr said of an October trip to a pantry. “It’s a constant struggle for everybody.”

‘There’s an accountability’

Since 2008, Butler County has doubled the amount of money issued to food stamp recipients to nearly $80 million as of last year.

Those figures might climb downward, for the first time in five years, starting next year with the new state restrictions and federal cutbacks, said Jerome Kearns, the director of Butler County’s Jobs and Family Services.

“The accountability that has now been implemented on receiving the benefits is, obviously, something that I think people have wanted for some time,” Kearns said.

Starting Jan. 1, the state will require food stamp recipients, between the ages of 18 and 50, to work or volunteer at least 20 hours every week. Pregnant women or parents with dependent children don’t have to work to receive their benefits.

In Warren County, some of the roughly 10,000 people receiving benefits at the cost of $1.2 million monthly, are required to meet with a caseworker to discuss the new requirements, said Lauren Cavanaugh, the director of human services for Warren County’s Jobs and Family Services. She couldn’t give an exact figure, but said some people have been sanctioned from the program because they failed to show up for their meeting.

Kearns estimates roughly 3,800 of the roughly 48,000 residents in Butler County who benefit from food stamps every month will need to follow the new rules to continue to qualify for the assistance program.

The new restrictions might help his agency weed out food stamp fraud — an issue his agency is working to combat.

“The potential exists to have an impact on people who may have been receiving the benefit that shouldn’t have been,” Kearns said.

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