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Use of Food Stamps Skyrocketing in Northern Virginia

Program doubles in Arlington, triples in Fairfax and quadruples in Alexandria.

Calculating Poverty

To be eligible for food stamps in Virginia, an individual must earn less than $1,211 a month. A family of three must earn less than $2,069 a month, and a family of five must earn less than $2,927 a month.

The use of food stamps is skyrocketing in Northern Virginia, and the spike isn’t just about the recession.

Over the course of the last decade, anti-poverty programs have been quietly expanding eligibility. And as more and more people qualify, local governments have been aggressively seeking out individuals who may meet the requirements to let them know what benefits are available. Now, as a result of those trends, about half of the recipients of food stamps live above the poverty federal poverty level.

“To me, that’s a shocker,” said David Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University. “This is a program that’s shifted from helping people in poverty to helping people with a low income.”

In 2010, the federal government spent more than $68 billion on food stamps. Of the 40 million who receive food stamps, slightly more than half were above the poverty line as measured by the U.S. Census. With members of Congress facing the so-called “fiscal cliff,” Armor estimates that the federal government could save as much as $200 billion a year by tightening eligibility of anti-poverty programs to those who live at or below the federal poverty level — not just food stamps, but health insurance, housing and income support. Others disagree.

“How about cutting a battle carrier group?” asked Charles Meng, executive director of Arlington Food Assistance Center. “We have our priorities all screwed up.”

IN THE LAST DECADE, the number of people who receive food stamps has doubled in Arlington County, tripled in Fairfax County and quadrupled in the city of Alexandria. And the increased spending in Northern Virginia is part of a larger national trend. During the eight years of Republican President George W. Bush, federal spending on anti-poverty programs grew by $100 billion. In the first to years of Democratic President Barack Obama, they grew another $150 billion. Much of that increase has come from broadened eligibility.

“All of those stringent verifications we used to get we don’t have to get anymore,” said Linda Horn, manager for the public assistance benefits program in Alexandria. “Right now, we take your word on your bank account for example.”

Government officials no longer consider whether or not applicants have an automobile. They no longer consider whether or not applicants have educational loans. More homeless people are now eligible than in previous years. The result of all these relaxed eligibility requirements is that a drastically increased number of people are eligible for food stamps, formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Local governments have also been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reach out to individuals who qualify for benefits but have not applied.

“We’ve gotten better at finding the people,” said Mary Katherine D’Addario, public assistance benefit bureau chief in Arlington County. “We use different tools now to help people become more aware of SNAP and enroll in SNAP.”

PARTICIPATION RATES have spiked across Northern Virginia as more and more people who are eligible for the benefits have become aware of them. Arlington has seen participation double from 20 percent to 40 percent. And Alexandria has seen its participation rate jump from 30 percent to 50 percent. New technology has helped government officials expand, as Electronic Benefit Transfer cards have allowed the transaction to look as simple as swiping a credit card.

“It used to be much more stigmatized to have those little paper coupons,” said Kurt Larrick, communications manager for the Arlington County Department of Human Services. “But now you can go to the grocery store and use your EBT card, and nobody really knows you’re paying with SNAP benefits.”

Human Services workers across Northern Virginia say the recession clearly made the needs more pressing. Many potential recipients that were eligible but not receiving found themselves in need of help. And the increased outreach and new technology helped. Perhaps most significantly, however, recipients don’t need to live in poverty. To be eligible for food stamps in Virginia, applicants need to be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

“It gets to be a slippery slope. Once you go beyond the poverty line, it’s not clear where you stop.” said Armor. “I don’t think that we can afford to have a safety net that’s aimed more at increasing the comfort level as opposed to providing true safety for those that are truly poor.”

DURING HUNGER ACTION MONTH, nonprofits across Virginia asked their volunteers and employees to take a challenge — live off of $4.03 a day. That’s the average daily benefit from the food stamp program in Virginia. Advocates for expanding the social safety net to include the working poor say that the benefits don’t amount to much for the individual, and that government can afford to help those in need.

“Try to feed yourself on $4.03 a day, much less a family,” said Meng. “And you’ll find that really doesn’t go very far.”