WARNER ROBINS -- The number of people on food stamps is up across Georgia and the nation, and even affluent Houston County is no exception.
The number of people on food stamps in Houston County has nearly doubled in the past five years, from 13,300 to 26,578, which is 18.5 percent of the population, according to figures provided by the Georgia Department of Human Services. In Bibb County, that number has gone from 29,895 to 47,353, or 30 percent of the population. Other Middle Georgia counties have also seen sharp increases.
Across Georgia nearly one in five people are on food stamps. In 2011 in Georgia, food stamps cost $2.2 billion in federal tax dollars. In June, food stamps nationwide hit a record 47 million recipients, about 15 percent of the population. The federal government spent $78 billion on food stamps on 2011.
The increase in any given area is directly related to the economy of the area and the increase in unemployment, said Robert Nielsen, an assistant professor and poverty expert at the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Economics. However, he said the Obama administration also has done more to reach out to people who are eligible but haven’t applied.
In March, the Houston County Department of Family and Children Services opened a satellite office for food-stamp applicants at the Middle Georgia Community Action Agency office on Green Street. Lindsay Conley, the case manager of the office, said the location was opened to have a site closer to the population in Warner Robins that needs it the most, although many people still don’t know about it.
Samantha Perman was there recently applying for an increase in her food stamps from the current $100 per month. She has two young children and lives with her boyfriend, who has a job as a delivery truck driver, but it isn’t enough to make ends meet, she said. She has been employed off and on but has difficulty keeping a job due to health issues and the need to care for her children. She said she has usually not taken food stamps when she had a job, but got back on the rolls earlier this year. She said it would be difficult to get by without the assistance.
“A lot of people do need help,” she said.
Warner Robins City Councilman Daron Lee, who represents the area that includes the new satellite office, said he doesn’t think the increase is due to an influx of poor people into Houston County. He also doesn’t think the increase is tied just to those traditionally known as the poor but rather working-class people who have lost their jobs or are working at lower paying jobs. The high unemployment rate among military veterans may also be a factor, he said.
“It’s not just the poor,” he said of the increase. “There’s a wide range of people who are in need of federal assistance.”
Nielsen backed up that assessment. He said even people living in a middle-class area could have a neighbor on food stamps if that person is unemployed or working a lower-paying job.
“Most people don’t go around advertising they are on food stamps,” he said. “A lot of us are on food stamps.”
While still generally called “food stamps” the term goes back to the days when recipients actually got certificates to take to the grocery store. The official name is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Now recipients get a card, which works like a credit card, and a certain amount is put on the card twice a month. It used to be once a month, but that caused a run on grocery stores, so now it is more spread out.
“Supplemental” is a key word in the program’s name.
“It’s not meant to pay for all of your food,” Conley said.Many people who apply have jobs but just can’t make ends meet, she said. Many applications are also turned down because the applicant makes too much money.
To be eligible, total household income cannot be more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level.For a mother with two children, that would be an annual income of $24,000 before taxes.
The need is impacting local food charities because SNAP often isn’t enough. Charles Hines, executive director of Loaves and Fishes Ministry in Macon, said the number of people coming in for help is increasing, while grant funding is getting harder to come by due to the number of other charities seeking help. It couldn’t come at a worse time of year.
“During the holiday season you see a spike anyway. Anyone who normally wouldn’t make use of a social services facility, during the holidays quite naturally they don’t want their kids to be without basic necessity,” he said.