“SALLY” IS A single mother who had been working as a caseworker for a mental health counseling facility for adults, until she became a victim of downsizing and has spent the last two years unemployed. Things were tough for her while collecting unemployment insurance, but that has ended and Sally has had to do what she could to provide food for herself and her 6-year-old daughter. And that meant getting what has traditionally been called food stamps, public assistance to help her stretch her exceedingly meager budget.
Sally is not the real name of the 40-year-old Neptune resident and college graduate, but she asked that her name be withheld. Sally’s story has become more common here in Monmouth County.
“You just feel so helpless; sometimes it feels so hopeless,” she said recently.
Kathleen Weir, the deputy director of the Monmouth County Division of Social Services, shared the startling news that her offices has seen an 83 percent increase since Oct. 2009 in active case loads for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously known as food stamps, a federally funded public assistance program. According to Weir the current number of active cases as of last month stands at 16,585. By active case, Weir explained that the number of those applying has remained fairly consistent since 2009, but this indicates more are meeting the eligibility requirements.
On the state level, enrollment has increased by more than 24 percent, by about 150,000 individuals, from March 2010 to March 2011, according to information provided by Nicole Brossoie, assistant commissioner of public affairs for the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
During that same time period, according to Brossoie, the number of households on the program grew by a little more than 25 percent or about 80,000 additional homes.
When money gets tight, when people try to live on less as they lose their jobs or find themselves in difficult straits, they will make changes, cut expenses. But “Food is not a discretionary expense. You need it to live,” this week said Arti Sinha, a Monmouth County human services specialist.
Sinha said the makeup of the clients has been changing in these last few economically difficult years. “I’ve seen more retirees then I did in the past,” as those on fixed incomes try to address the rising cost of groceries. “I’m seeing younger families who in the past were able to make it,” but now can’t, she said.
“I had people in the past say, ‘There are people who need it more than me. I’m not going to apply. But now I need it,’” Sinha said of her experiences. “That is the phrase I keep hearing over and over, that people are coming because they must, it’s imperative.”
“It’s very said.”
There has also been a change in some of the geography. There are traditional pockets within the county, most of them in the eastern portion, where clients would live. Now, though, “We’ve seen a lot of clients that we would never have seen in the past,” from some of the western and affluent communities, such as Manalapan and Marlboro, Allentown, Millstone, she said.
“We’ve definitely seen quite an influx,” she said.
A family of four would qualify for SNAP if their gross income level doesn’t exceed $3,447 per month. And families can include children up to age 22. “If you live together and eat together you are considered part of the same household,” according to Sinha. There are other deductions available for housing, utilities and medical expenses. At that income level a family would be eligible for $668 a month from the program for food. And “the bigger the household size, the higher the income threshold,” she said.
But for some that allowance isn’t enough to carry them through the month, forcing them to go to food pantries.
One woman told Sinha how she buys mac and cheese and frozen hot dogs for her three young children. “’I buy things based on how long I can make them last,’” she told Sinha.
“You’re buying based on that it’s filling, rather than maybe nutritional, and you look for what’s on sale,” Sinha said, relating her clients’ experience.
Sinha and her colleagues have seen their caseloads triple, which has its impact on them as well. “Everyone’s story is so compelling,” and she and her co-workers worry about suffering from compassion fatigue. “You wake up at 3 o’clock [a.m.] thinking about finishing a case,” she said.
“I truly feel for families with children and the elderly,” Sinha said. “They are the most vulnerable of our population.”
Sally in her work sometimes would have to assist other vulnerable populations, those emotionally and mentally challenged, to maneuver the system to get them benefits, never thinking she would be in a similar situation she said.
“I’ve heard a lot of complaints,” from those that had been her clients. Some lived in single room occupancy hotels, under housing vouchers. But those facilities usually don’t allow hot plates or refrigerators, and the food program doesn’t allow clients to purchase prepared foods, making it difficult for them, she said.
SNAP also doesn’t cover paper products, which can be another problem for people, Sally said.
Sally has been surviving on intermittent work in her field and some help from her family. But looking for work has been “horrible” and she and her daughter will have to move in with her parents.
For now the food stamps provide a necessary lifeline, but “It’s limited, it’s once a month and it’s never enough,” she said.