10/27/13 — Food stamps losing, gaining

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Food stamps losing, gaining

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 27, 2013 1:50 AM

An Oct. 1 cost-of-living increase for food stamp recipients will probably offset the loss recipients will experience when the federal stimulus funding for the program expires Friday.

Either way, the amounts are so small that most recipients probably won't notice the difference, Wayne County Department of Social Services officials said.

As of Sept. 30, there were 11,720 county households representing 24,443 people receiving food stamps. The food stamp programs brings in about $2,815,748 monthly in federal funds to the county, most of which are spent with Wayne County retailers, said Debbie Jones, Wayne County DSS director.

Stimulus funds were added to the program in 2009. The cost-of-living adjustments are made at the start of the federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

The adjustments are handled on the state level as provided for by the federal government. The information handed down from the state did not specify a percentage for the adjustment, Ms. Jones said.

However, Ms. Jones said it probably would work out to be about the same as the approximately $13 that is being lost as the stimulus funding ends.

"It is kind of a Catch-22," said Cynthia Graham, DSS economic services administrator. "You are getting a cost of living -- they are giving you a little bit in the allotment -- then, (they are saying) 'we are going to take it away in November.'

"I think the allotment back then (2009), if I remember correctly, was like $187 and it went up to $200. That is the maximum allotment with zero income for food nutrition. Of course, it varies from each person because it is based on their income and the number of people in the household."

"So you are not talking about a lot (of money) to begin with," Ms. Jones added.

The DSS director said her office did not have an average benefit increase because there is such a wide spread in determining qualifications. Changes to benefits vary based on factors such as income, household size and expenses, to name a few.

"A lot of different things attach to figuring the amounts," Ms. Jones said.

For example, unemployment benefits increased slightly, but that was not counted toward calculating food stamp benefits.

"It is also based on your deductions," Mrs. Graham said. "So if you are paying utilities, and that is based on a standard deduction. Or if you are just paying a telephone deduction. Also, there is a standard deduction that everybody gets.

"Then we can also look at your shelter, if you are paying shelter expense, say if you have rent or mortgage. We have to have proof of that. So there is a lot of different variables in there as to how they figure it. Everybody's is so different."

Also, benefits can accumulate. A person does not have to spend it all at one time, as long as they are spent within a year, Mrs. Graham said.

The county's average food stamp benefit is probably $300 to $400 monthly for an average-sized family. Ms. Jones said.

"The huge amounts that people say they see in the stores, that is very rare," she said.

The Department of Social Services does not maintain records of how long an individual has been in the income-based program.

"As long as they qualify, they can receive," Ms. Jones said. "(Numbers) have been up since 2008. It has climbed up every year."

She said enrollment traditionally increases when the cold weather hits as construction workers find themselves without work.

"But since the economy went south back in 2008, it has just climbed and climbed and climbed. There is a huge impact on the local economy. For the most part, it is all spent here in the county. It is a very big number."

Making sure a family should receive food stamps is the program's defense against fraud, Ms. Jones said.

"We do a lot of upfront work. When they claim a rent deduction, they have to prove it. We verify everything, and, with all of the electronic systems we have access to, we can instantly see who is working, where they are working, and what they are making. We do all of that.

"Of course they have to be U.S. citizens or have refuge status to qualify. It is income-based and it is an entitlement program so as long as they meet qualifications, they can receive."

Ms. Jones said the program is monitored to make sure food stamps are used properly.

"There is fraud. There is fraud in everything," she said. "We have three full-time program integrity workers and that is what they do, they follow up on fraud reports. People call in. They send anonymous letters."

DSS is interested in individual fraud, she said. Any misuse of food stamps by a store is handled by other agencies.

"We do occasionally get reports of a particular store that they will say, 'He is letting them use their food stamp benefits to buy gas.' We don't investigate that piece. That is out of our hands. We send that to the state and it follows up on that."

However, Ms. Jones said her office has not seen a large volume of fraud.