Faces of poverty: More are depending on SNAP

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 8, 2011

Editor’s note: Undergraduate journalism majors at UNC-Chapel Hill recently explored the human dimensions of poverty, unemployment and economic distress in North Carolina. This is part of a series  of stories they wrote.

By Louie Horvath
Laura Williams has been looking forward to going to the grocery store — to shop for herself. After all, she works at the supermarket, but only recently has gotten on the food stamps program in order to buy what she sells to others all day long.
Williams is a single mother of four children, ages 15, 8, 6 and 2. “My rent is more than I make per month at work,” she said, “so it’s kind of hard to get food, pay the bills, and make sure my kids get what they need. It’s really really hard.”
As a result, she now participates in the federal Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps. The mother of four plans her food purchases for each month, periodically replenishing milk and other perishables, seeking to ensure her food supply lasts the entire month.
“When we go through the grocery store, everything is planned out for the whole month,” Williams said. “The main thing is meats, I’ll get them and then we’ll go get frozen vegetables, fresh fruit, stuff like that.”
Some of the unhealthiest food is also the cheapest to consumers. So for many people on a limited budget, getting more food often means buying food of limited nutrition.
“Whatever’s on sale,” Williams said. “Just to make it last throughout the month.”
Williams is part of a growing multitude that relies on SNAP to help them meet their food needs. In the past five years, North Carolina has seen the number of SNAP cases nearly double, from 385,697 in April of 2007 to 716,471 in February of this year. Growth in the caseload has accelerated each year from 2007 onwards.
Nationally, the number of individuals in SNAP has gone up every year since 2000, and, as in North Carolina, the last three years have seen an accelerated growth in cases. In 2007, 26.3 million Americans were in SNAP, and now that number has ballooned to more 40 million Americans.
“I would say it’s because more people are needing assistance,” Lori Walston, public information officer at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said. “I mean, that’s kind of the dumb answer, but obviously it’s economy based.”
Walston laid out a typical scenario in which the recent economic slowdown has intensified reliance on SNAP, once former employees see their unemployment money run out.
“You have a case where a lot of folks don’t qualify for food stamps until their own employment benefits run out, because those employee benefits are still going to be higher than where the ceiling would be to qualify,” Walston said. “Once they go off of unemployment, they’re now eligible for other kinds of assistance since their resources have been depleted.”
In that sense, the reliance on SNAP represents a second wave of deploying a recession safety net.
Williams, the supermarket employee, had been in the SNAP program once before, but dropped out. Now, with four children and a larger rent than working wage, she has come back to the SNAP program. It is a trend that Louise Moize, economic services intake supervisor at the Orange County Department of Social Services, has seen often. With the economic pain inflicted by the recession, many find that government aid is the only respite.
“Pride has taken a backseat to the economy,” Moize said. “There used to be a lot of people that didn’t want to be in the program because they didn’t want to be known as being on food stamps. … Some people would not even talk to us about food stamps because they didn’t want that stigma attached to them.” 
Louie Horvath is a senior majoring in journalism and a senior writer for the Daily Tar Heel.