By CRAIG FREILICH
The number of St. Lawrence County residents receiving Food Stamps has increased more than 60 percent in the past six years.
Temporary Assistance through the Department of Social Services has also been climbing slowly but fairly steadily over the last several years – approximately 20 percent since 2006.
“And individual Medicaid over the last five years has increased approximately 26 percent,” said St. Lawrence County Commissioner of Social Services Christopher Rediehs.
“Some of the increases are staggering,” he said.
A major reason cited for increased usage of Food Stamps is the Great Recession, but while it officially ended four years ago, the number of people getting food help has only leveled off, not decreased.
From August 2007 to August 2010, the number of individuals receiving Food Stamps – now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – rose from 8,893 to 14,108, an increase of nearly 60 percent.
That coincides with the worst of the economic and unemployment crisis of the Great Recession. There were layoffs at GM and Alcoa in Massena, and GM eventually closed its plant there. The county’s unemployment rate topped 10 percent.
Most of the SNAP increase – about 50 percent – occurred at the onset and in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, from 2008 to 2010.
Since then, monthly SNAP tallies have remained fairly steady, generally ranging between 14,000 and 15,000, hitting a high of 15,426 for May 2011 and topping 15,000 for a while earlier this year before retreating again. In August 2013, the number was 14,544. These figures do not include SNAP benefits that those on Temporary Assistance are receiving.
“The expansion in the Food Stamp program I think is in part due to many people in the past who were eligible but had not pursued a safety net provision. They were eligible but had not applied. But in this difficult economy, it's not an option for many to put it off if they want to continue to get by,” said Commissioner Rediehs.
It had been known that many people who were eligible for SNAP had not applied, but Rediehs said there had been no one concentrated outreach effort.
“There has been outreach all along, so I don't think that is responsible on its own for the numbers increasing. No, I think the increase in the numbers is related to the struggling economy. Outreach does not account for such an increase. That would not change the situation the way the struggling economy has changed things – the way unemployment, lower incomes, and diminished assets have.”
Rediehs said that Temporary Assistance is “for needy families. They may have lost a job, maybe a spouse left, and they're figuring out what to do, and there's a temporary need for some help to get back on their feet. But the people in the greatest need are continuing to grow in numbers. It's significant.”
The number of recipients averaged between 1,600 and 1,800 during the course of 2006, according to figures from the county DSS. That number broke 2,000 in 2009. Now, the monthly average for this year is running at about 2,200 individuals on assistance at any given moment.
In February 2009, the Department of Social Services said there were 16 percent more people using Temporary Assistance than in February 2008, and the department was receiving so many requests for help that they extended the hours that they would see new applicants.
While eligibility requirements for Temporary Assistance are higher than those for SNAP, the supplemental assistance program has grown 30 percent between 2009 and 2013. At the same time, the number of individual Medicaid recipients over the last five years has increased approximately 26 percent.
Medicaid Costs Rise
Medicaid costs for the county have been on the rise, and are among the biggest budget lines in the annual county budget. New York State is still one of a handful of states that require counties to fund a share of their Medicaid costs rather than the state assuming the entire state share.
Again, “Medicaid is an option of last resort” for people who have no insurance, no savings, and insufficient income to cover doctor, hospital and prescription expenses, along with the expenses of everyday living, Rediehs said.
“Here we have a Medicaid share, currently $24 million a year. That is a significant part of the county budget, but the Medicaid benefits St. Lawrence County people receive is much greater than that, close to $170 million a year,” Rediehs said.
“In part because of St. Lawrence County’s difficult economic challenges, we have more people eligible for Medicaid as a percentage of the population than other counties. So we receive more per capita than most other counties.”