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Economic boom masks hunger among us

Christy Wills

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Any literature buff would recognize this as the beginning of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” However, to those working in the social service field, the quote represents, and aptly sums up, the newest report by the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Tufts University.

On the face of things our economy is doing very well, unemployment is the lowest in 30 years, there has been a 50 percent drop in the welfare case load and a one third drop in food stamp utilization. However, a paradox lies in the fact that emergency food programs all over the United States have reported drastic increases in the numbers of clients served. At Project MANA alone, the number of individuals requesting help has more than tripled, from 5,089 North Tahoe residents in 1996 to 16,002 in 1999.

The Tufts report, ‘Paradox of Our Times: Hunger in a Strong Economy,’ is the result of an analysis of national, state and local data from 1996, when the new welfare policy took effect, until the present. The current number of people in the U.S. on welfare (2.7 percent) and using food stamps (6.6 percent) is at an all time low. One conclusion that could easily be drawn from this dramatic low is that fewer families are in need, and our strong economy is keeping more people afloat than ever. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case.

The Tufts report has identified four main reasons for the drop in food stamp utilization: eligibility confusion (especially after changes were implemented in 1996), administrative practices within the food stamp program, burdensome application and recertification process and asset limits and shelter cost caps. Working at Project MANA and being a former food stamp recipient myself, much of this hit home. Eligibility confusion is especially high among people who formerly or currently receive welfare, but do not realize that they still qualify for food stamps. Many falsely believe that any income will disqualify them from the food stamp program.

Once a person realizes their eligibility, they must go through a process that can be difficult. If an Incline Village resident qualifies for and wants to receive any welfare or food stamps they must somehow find a way down to Reno to apply for the programs. Oftentimes this includes spending money that they do not have and possibly taking a day away from any work they may have secured.

However, the biggest hindrance for the North Tahoe area is the asset limits and shelter cost caps. The asset limits makes anyone with over $2,000 in countable resources (checking/ savings account, cash, stocks/bonds) or anyone owning a car worth more than $4,650 ineligible. The possibility of owning a car that is reliable in the snow for under $4,650 is unlikely and with limited public transportation this can make holding down a job very difficult. The second catch to the new rules is the shelter cost cap. Anyone who has ever looked for housing here knows that affordable, warm shelter is rare in this resort area. According to the Tufts Report, “Families with high shelter costs may have incomes above 130 percent of the poverty level and still be food insecure, but not eligible for food stamps.”

Along with the many people who are working and still food insecure, are the legal immigrants who have had their eligibility decreased since the 1996 changes.

When Project MANA was founded in 1991 out of a basement in Incline Village, the purpose was to serve as a safety net for those who fell through the cracks of government assistance. Since the 1996 welfare reform law, we are no longer the back up support. Project MANA now finds itself as the first and only reliable resource for many of the food insecure families in the area (either working or non-working). This switch in roles is detrimental for many reasons, not the least being public perception. Government officials relish in touting statistics of dropping welfare and food stamp utilization; however, this gives the false impression that our booming economy is reaching all levels of society. Instead, non-profits, who rely completely on grants and donations, are increasingly becoming a weekly solution for families, rather than an emergency option. We do not have the resources or capacity to continue to expand at this rate, and this should not be our purpose. The majority of our programs focus on improving self reliance and positive nutrition choices, yet our immediate service of providing food is still our most needed function. At Project MANA we believe that adequate nutrition for people in food insecure households is in the overall best interest of the entire community. Every human on earth is born with the same basic needs of food, clothing and shelter; it is only our circumstances that differ.

Christy Wills is a Tahoe resident, Americorps VISTA volunteer and a Project MANA Community Education Coordinator.


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