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Hawaii News

Food stamp eligibility expands

About 22,000 more Hawaii residents will be eligible for food stamps starting next month, when the state changes the income cut off for the benefits to up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level — the maximum allowed for the program.


August 2010: 145,534
June 2009: 120,193
FY2009 (average): 114,599
FY2008: 96,551
FY2007: 89,629
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture


Households participating in food stamp program (FY2009): 57,857
Increase in food stamp use from June 2009 to August 2010: 21 percent
Average monthly benefit per person: $217
Total annual food stamp benefits for Hawaii in FY2009: $274 million
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture


Starting Oct. 1, the state will expand eligibility for food stamps to those earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level. Right now, eligibility is capped at 130 percent of the poverty level.
For more information or to apply for benefits, call the Department of Human Services at 643-1643.

The change will further boost participation in a program that has seen skyrocketing growth in recent years and now serves more than 10 percent of the state’s population.

Under the changes, a family of four could earn up to $50,736 a year and still qualify for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Now, food stamp recipients can earn up to 130 percent of the poverty level (or $32,976 for a family of four).

"This will put food on the table for hungry families," Lillian Koller, director of the state Department of Human Services, said at a news conference yesterday. "It will also stimulate our troubled economy."

Increasing the eligibility level will bring an additional $60 million in federal food stamp dollars to the state. In fiscal year 2009, the program brought in about $273 million.

Expansion of the program, designed to help more families grappling with layoffs and pay cuts, comes as the state already has seen big growth in food stamp usage in the economic downturn.

The number of individuals on food stamps statewide is up 62 percent from 2007, to more than 145,534.

Advocates applauded the eligibility expansion yesterday, saying it would help the "gap group" families who are often overlooked by other benefits programs.

"We’re happy this is finally coming into play," said Debbie Shimizu, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers-Hawaii chapter. "It’s a good thing."

The Hawaii Foodbank also supported the expansion, but President Dick Grimm said he didn’t think it would mean less demand at free-food pantries.

Many people who get food stamps also turn to food pantries when their benefits run out near the end of the month.

The Hawaii Foodbank distributed 11.3 million pounds of food in the fiscal year that ended in June 2010. That’s up 1.2 million pounds from the previous year.

"We don’t expect to see any lessening of demand" any time soon, he said. "As fast as it comes in, it goes out."

The expansion of eligible recipients comes as the Department of Human Services struggles to tackle backlogs, and there are questions about how the department’s offices will be able to handle a wave of new applications.

About 80 percent of food stamp applications are processed in a timely manner — or within at least 30 days for regular applications or seven days in emergency cases.

That’s down from 90 percent before the economic downturn and 87 percent in July 2009.

Federal guidelines mandate a 95 percent timeliness rate.

Despite the backlog, Koller said yesterday she doesn’t believe timeliness will worsen further when eligibility is expanded.

She said the department is working to speed up processing in its food stamp offices through a streamlining initiative that includes conducting eligibility interviews over the phone, doing away with assets tests for applicants and putting employees in teams to tackle workloads assembly-line style.

Last month, Department of Human Services workers, including those who process food stamps, expressed anger at a legislative briefing over growing caseloads and backlogs at the department.

Linda Tsark, statewide administrator for food stamps, said at the briefing she felt like she was being "worked to death."

Yesterday, Tsark said the income eligibility change will spur a "surge of applications. No doubt about it."

But she also said that the change was needed. "It should be a tremendous help to families," she said, adding that efforts to streamline processing are helping make dents in backlogs.

Allen Ng, western regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which funds the food stamp program, said many states are struggling to improve timeliness as they see increases in applications.

Meanwhile, about 25 states have increased eligibility to the maximum income level allowed, he said.

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