Last updated: March 07. 2014 7:45PM - 929 Views
By - cberendt@civitasmedia.com

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A food stamp program that aids 1 in 7 Americans has taken a hit in North Carolina and the nation in recent months, with a reduction in federal assistance last year to the N.C. program and across the country, and a recently-signed Farm Bill taking another significant chunk out of the program in 15 other states.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps or FNS (Food and Nutrition Services), assists 47 million Americans a month. A temporary increase in food stamps officially expired in November, decreasing federal assistance to residents of Sampson and across the country. Compounding matters, the Farm Bill signed into law last month, while expanding federal crop insurance for farmers by $7 billion over a decade and providing subsidies for rural communities and environmentally-sensitive land, also cuts food stamps by $800 million a year — or around 1 percent.

Sampson is dealing with the effects of November’s reduction but is not going to contend with the Farm Bill’s axing of food stamp funding.

The $800 million annual savings will come from cracking down on some states that seek to boost individual food stamp benefits by giving people small amounts of federal heating assistance that they don’t need, called “Heat and Eat” programs, operated in 15 states and Washington, D.C.

The bill requires states to give individual recipients at least $20 in heating assistance before a higher food stamp benefit could kick in. North Carolina does not have a “Heat and Eat” program, so the cuts included in the Farm Bill will not affect N.C. households that receive food stamps, officials said.

Anti-hunger advocates said the bill would harm 850,000 low-income American households, about 1.7 million people spread across 15 states, which would lose an average of $90 per month in benefits because of the cuts in the food stamp program.

Sampson is suffering similar losses, but not due to the bill.

Starting in 2009, the federal stimulus pumped $45.2 billion into SNAP, increasing what would have been a monthly benefit of $588 a month to $668 for an average household of four. In the four years since the federal stimulus hiked benefits, the number of active food stamps cases in Sampson doubled and the amount of people receiving those benefits increased by close to 80 percent.

In November, however, food stamps were reduced and the same family that was getting $668 started receiving $632 a month, about a 5 percent cut.

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Division of Social Services, Sampson’s numbers have stayed relatively steady since that reduction took effect, dropping somewhat.

In February, there were 6,754 active cases involving 14,500 individuals. In January, the active cases were slightly higher, at 6,795, but the total individuals on those cases were nearly the same, at 14,494.

In October 2013, the active cases and individuals stood at 6,867 and 14,738, respectively. Those numbers decreased in November to 6,836 and 14,627 and again in December 2013, when the active cases stood at 6,784 and individuals on those cases totaled 14,594.

Since the expiration of some benefits Nov. 1, the total active cases have dropped 113 and there are 238 less individuals receiving assistance in Sampson.

“This is a mandatory change that we have no control over locally,” Department of Social Services director Sarah Bradshaw said at the time of the reduction. “All we can do is inform recipients and make sure to connect them with other food resources available through food banks and pantries. This change will, of course, create some additional hardship for families as it relates to being able to acquire the amount of food they are accustomed to needing monthly for their household.”

A large backlog of delayed food stamp applications earlier this year also threatened the loss of funds to administer the program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture told DHHS in late January that it needed to complete all backlogged benefits applications or face the loss of $88 million in federal funding the state receives annually to manage SNAP.

About 20,000 applications and renewals were processed on a short deadline last month.

However, by March 31, the state must eliminate any applications that are now waiting for longer than 30 days, the threshold the federal government uses to evaluate timely processing.

The state receives 45,000 new food stamp applications per month.

Sampson County DSS took 288 FNS applications in February, down from 389 received in October 2013.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at cberendt@civitasmedia.com.

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