Food stamp caseload begins to fall in N.H., but agencies say many still need help
The number of New Hampshire families relying on food stamps peaked in January and has been declining for six straight months, in large part because a newly reintroduced federal rule is limiting some low-income adults to three months of assistance.
“It’s not because the economy improved,” said Terry Smith, director of the Division of Family Assistance at the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Many food banks are actually seeing more demand, not less, even as the overall economy continues to improve, said Maria Painchaud, treasurer of the Capital Region Food Program.
“It’s not that there’s been a reduction overall. It’s just a shift of resources,” she said.
The economic recession that the National Bureau of Economic Research says began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009 caused unemployment to spike in New Hampshire and across the country. More people began to seek welfare assistance including food stamps, which are funded by the federal government, though the state covers half the administrative costs.
In New Hampshire, 30,077 families were receiving food stamps in December 2007. That number rose steadily over the next five years, hitting a peak of 58,229 families in January.
Then, starting in February, it began to decline. New Hampshire’s caseload was 55,070 in July, down 5.4 percent from January and its lowest level since November 2011.
Nationally, the food stamp population was fairly steady in the first five months of 2013, falling slightly from 23.09 million households in January to 23.07 million in May, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.
In New Hampshire, food stamps still help feed a lot of people: nearly 116,000 residents, including more than 48,000 children, roughly 8 percent of the state’s population.
And, Smith told a subcommittee of the state’s Health and Human Services Oversight Committee yesterday, it isn’t simply that the economy is improving.
In 2009, as part of its stimulus program, the federal government lifted the usual limit of three months of food stamps every three years for able-bodied adults, ages 18-50, who don’t have any dependents and either work or volunteer fewer than 20 hours a week.
But last year, New Hampshire’s falling unemployment rate – it stood at 5.1 percent in July, compared with a national rate of 7.4 percent – meant the restriction resumed, effective Nov. 1.
At the beginning of February, those childless adults began to hit the limit and lose their food stamp benefits if they didn’t meet the work requirement: 1,796 so far in the state, Smith said.
But, Painchaud said, many of those people still need help, even if they no longer receive food stamps.
“As a result, these individuals are going more frequently to the food pantries and the soup kitchens and the social service agencies to get assistance for food,” she said.
Demand for assistance isn’t falling much as the unemployment rate drops, said Jackie Whatmough, director of Concord’s welfare office.
“We’re about the same this summer as we were last summer. We’re not noticing any decrease yet,” Whatmough said.
More changes are coming to the food stamp program this year, Smith said.
Starting Nov. 1, a temporary boost in benefits that was part of the 2009 stimulus program will expire. The cut will vary, from $11 a month for a household of one to $36 for a household of four, and $1 a month for households receiving the minimum benefit, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
And Congress is looking at deeper cuts to the food stamp program in future years.
The Democratic-led U.S. Senate passed a farm bill this summer that included a $4.1 billion cut over the next decade, while House Republicans have said they’re looking at a $40 billion cut over 10 years.
Smith told the subcommittee members yesterday he’s not sure how those proposed cuts would affect New Hampshire, but he’s not too worried at the moment about the $40 billion one.
“One of the reasons that I’m not really looking hard at the House version is, I just don’t have much confidence that that level of egregiousness is going to actually occur,” Smith said.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)