|on 03-25-2009 01:18
BY JIM BARON
PROVIDENCE - Food Stamp recipients will see a significant bump in their monthly allotment, thanks to a provision in the federal stimulus bill passed by Congress earlier this year.
The nearly 100,000 Ocean State Food Stamp recipients - the program is now called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and recipients now use debit cards rather than the paper Food Stamps - will see a permanent increase in their benefits between $2 to $24 a month starting April 1.
It translates to an increase of $13.6 percent.
Rhode Island's Congressional delegation hailed the increase, which is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
"Increasing Food Stamp benefits will help Rhode Islanders pay their grocery bills and maintain a healthy diet - and will keep business steady for our local grocers, farmers, and fishermen - during tough economic times," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
"This increase in federal aid will help feed more Rhode Island families who need assistance and it will help stimulate our economy, which helps everybody," said U.S. Senator Jack Reed, who noted that every $1 spent on food stamps helps generate $1.73 in economic activity.
"Food Stamps help individuals meet their nutritional needs on limited budgets and lend a hand to the most vulnerable among us. It is for this reason that I have supported and will continue to support a stronger and more expansive food stamp program, and so I'm especially pleased with this additional investment," Rep. Patrick Kennedy said.
"In tough economic times, this increase in nutrition benefits will help low-income Rhode Islanders, including elderly and disabled individuals and families with young children, make ends meet," said Rep. Jim Langevin. "The benefits of participation in SNAP also extend beyond the individual to the entire local economy."
Besides the direct money to recipients, said Henry Shelton of Pawtucket's George Wiley Center, the federal government is also providing the state about $900,000 in administrative costs, which he asserts should be used to hire more workers to take applicant interviews to speed the process of getting the money to the eligible population.
That way, he said, Food Stamp offices could open on nights and weekends to allow working people who meet the eligibility guidelines to apply. Many people who are eligible for the program do not get the assistance because they can not show up at one of the Food Stamp offices across the state during the weekday business hours because they are at work. Program rules require a face-to-face interview for applicants. Shelton predicted that could get as many as another 50,000 to take advantage of the program
The state usually has to pick up 50 percent of the cost of employing Food Stamp workers, but Shelton said the extra stimulus money could be used to cover some of the state's share. He said employees in the various branch offices are overworked and working overtime to handle the heavy load of applicants.
Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Gov. Donald Carcieri, questioned some of Shelton's conclusions. She said it is still not clear how the federal government wants the money to be spent.
Kempe said the state Food Stamp offices "are well staffed and well within the federal regulations for processing applications. She said it is important for the state to "balance the ability to perform service and hire people" so that when money from the federal stimulus runs out, the state will not have more employees than it can afford.
Cathy Paquette, president of Local 2882 AFSCME, the union that represents Food Stamp workers, said there are about 700 applications backed up in the Warwick office alone. She said Saturday overtime hours are scheduled at that office to clear the backlog. "We'll be seeing hundreds of people between now and the middle of April." She said the state gets penalized by the federal government if they do not process an application within 30 days.
On a recent workday, she said, "the line was out the door and around the corner," with people waiting to complete their applications.
In the Warwick office where she works, Paquette said, each of the seven workers have a caseload of about 11,050. In Pawtucket there are four "eligibility technicians" with about 1,000 each and the five "ET's" in Woonsocket handle a similar amount.
Enrollment in SNAP has increased significantly in the past year, up almost 20 percent since January 2008. Information on eligibility guidelines and application assistance is available through the Rhode Island Food Stamp Outreach Project based at the University of Rhode Island. They may be reached, toll free, at 1-866-306-0270 .