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SNAP food benefits prove popular in downturn

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SNAP food benefits prove popular in downturn
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

GRAND FORKS -- Perhaps you've seen the snappy new television commercials for SNAP, the new acronym for the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

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"If you want to eat right when money's tight, SNAP can help," one of them goes, as a video shows several different smiling people opening a refrigerator door to get food. "It's for people with low income, young and old. It's for those with a job or who are looking for a job. It's for those with a car or just a baby stroller."

People in Grand Forks County and across North Dakota must be getting the message. It's nearly standing-room only, every hour of the business day, and the telephones are ringing constantly at county social service offices.

They're not all there for SNAP. The office delivers a variety of services, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicare assistance, low-income home energy assistance, child care assistance and others.

But it's SNAP that has seen the biggest increases in participation in the past couple of years. And people who qualify for SNAP often qualify for other assistance programs.

Together, the household caseload in Grand Forks County has grown by 28 percent over the past two years for SNAP, TANF and medical assistance. The SNAP household participation has increased by 35 percent over that period.

Statewide, the number of participating households grew by 5 percent from October 2007 to October 2008, and by 21 percent between 2003 and 2008.

That's minor compared with the 39.2-percent increase nationwide over that five-year period.

The state is promoting the SNAP program, too, by working with Lutheran Social Services to spread the word through its Great Plains Food Bank. Together, they're working on a statewide SNAP outreach plan, which soon will be submitted to the program's Denver regional office, according to Arlene Dura, state SNAP director at the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

All SNAP benefits are paid through the federal government. Some program costs are funded 20 percent by the state. Counties pay for administration of SNAP and other federally mandated human services programs.

So, who qualifies?

A growing number of people eligible for or actively seeking benefits fall in the category of working poor -- defined as people eligible for SNAP and live in households in which at least one member earned money from a job.

"I just think there's a real misconception about who's on public assistance in North Dakota," said Luellen Hart, eligibility worker supervisor in Grand Forks County. "A lot of people think it is people who aren't working or who aren't trying to make a living."

Hart offered some sample family budgets, based on fictional but typical families filling out SNAP and Medicaid budget worksheets:

- Household 1, with husband, wife and three children, ages 7, 5 and 3. Dad works 40 hours per week at $14 per hour. Mom works 32 hours per week for $8 per hour. They pay $850 month on their mortgage, property taxes and insurance. They qualify for about $400 per month in SNAP benefits. But they don't qualify for day care assistance, which can run $400 to $500 per child. The children are eligible for medical assistance.

- Household 2, with single mother and two children, ages 7 and 4. Mother is a full-time student who works 25 hours a week at $7.50 per hour. She also gets $600 a month from child support, which officials say is a low estimate. They qualify for about $285 a month from SNAP. They also qualify for some housing assistance, making their monthly rent $200. They pay about $150 monthly for after-school child care. All household members pass the income limits for their respective Medicaid limits.

County social workers say many families -- even those with jobs -- sometimes make choices between putting food on the table and paying for prescriptions or other necessities.

"I think a lot of people in Grand Forks would be surprised at the number of families that live in motels, that don't have a home," said Rachel Behm, family preservation supervisor. "They live in a motel because they don't have utilities to pay. They can't get on (public) housing. They know what they have to pay per week or per month, whatever it is. They're living in a one-bedroom, one-living room apartment."

The Grand Forks County Social Services budget is growing, too, to meet the increasing demand. It increased by 11.5 percent from 2006 to 2007 and by another 6.4 percent from 2007 to 2008. Those administrative costs are paid by county residents through their property taxes. In 2010, salaries will comprise $2.9 million of the county's $4.9 million social services budget.

The total number of staff will grow from 70 to 72 next year.

Those national promotions are helping to increase demand, which is taxing county budgets throughout the state as social workers struggle to keep up with that growing demand.

But some look at the picture from a different perspective.

"I like to say we help to drive economic development, too," said Keith Berger, Grand Forks County Social Services director. "When the city can say to a company, 'Come in, and pay $13 an hour' and that company may not have a benefit package, they maybe should say, 'Grand Forks County can help out with assistance.' Maybe, it's just food stamps. Maybe, it's some other program, but we do play a part in it.

"I'm sure that most of these employers paying $13 and $14 an hour aren't probably even aware that, 'Gee, this family might be eligible or might need it.'"

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