Last updated: October 18. 2013 4:53PM - 2488 Views
By - cberendt@civitasmedia.com

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A temporary increase in food stamps expires Oct. 31, meaning for millions of Americans — and many in Sampson — the benefits that have served to put food in pantries and on the table, especially in tough times during recent years, will be decreasing.

Food stamps — actually the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — go to 47 million Americans a month, almost half of them children and teenagers.

“This is a change that is about to impact approximately 47 million recipients nationwide,” said Sampson Department of Social Services director Sarah Bradshaw. “The state is not sending out mass change notices about this due to the cost associated with that volume of mail. Rather, local DSS agencies are posting notices as much as possible and educating our recipients. We have notices enlarged and posted throughout our building and the staff have been informing visitors and recipients as much as possible.”

Starting in 2009, the federal stimulus pumped $45.2 billion into SNAP, increasing what would have been a monthly benefit of $588 a month to $668 for an average household of four. In November, that same family will start getting $632 a month, about a 5 percent cut.

The monthly benefits, which go to one in seven Americans, fluctuate based on factors including food prices, income and inflation. Families and providers worry the expiration of the stimulus bump comes at a particularly bad time.

Though Census figures from September show poverty remains stuck at around 22 percent, in some states, the number of children living in poverty is climbing. The House voted to cut almost $4 billion a year from the roughly $80 billion-a-year program in an effort to find savings in the budget. A Senate bill would cut around $400 million a year.

Bradshaw said notices from the state have been posted at Sampson DSS in English and Spanish, also giving a link to the state’s notification online. In its letter to Social Services agencies, the state explained the situation.

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) kept maximum allotments at their current level until the regular Cost of Living Adjustments increased above the current levels or until the provision sunsets on Oct. 31, 2013. COLA increases have not surpassed the current maximum allotment levels and, as a result, the sunset clause takes effect and will decrease the maximum allotments effective Nov. 1, 2013,” the letter reads. “Because this is a statutory provision, it cannot be waived or consolidated into one effective date which requires states to adjust household allotments twice this year.”

While the COLA increase helped some FNS cases for October, that unfortunately, is negated by the November change. Bradshaw said that the situation leaves Sampson DSS officials’ hands tied.

“This is a mandatory change that we have no control over locally,” she said. “All we can do is inform recipients and make sure to connect them with other food resources available through food banks and pantries. This change will of course create some additional hardship for families as it relates to being able to acquire the amount of food they are accustomed to needing monthly for their household.”

As of August, there were 6,863 active FNS cases in Sampson, involving 15,768 individuals.

A silver lining is that, amid the recent threat of a federal government shutdown, the state as well as some private companies, such as Food Lion, infused food banks like Second Harvest with additional food assistance resources, Bradshaw noted. Community donations to food banks and pantries also tend to increase during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

“Hopefully families can, therefore, have increased access to those resources as they adjust to their monthly FNS allotment decreases,” said Bradshaw.

The November change will also impact those households who receive Simplified Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Benefits for these households will be reduced by $11 bringing the new SNAP allotments to $92 if the rent, mortgage, and/or lot rent expense is $150 per month or higher and $44 if the rent, mortgage and/or lot rent expense is less than $150 per month.

In the case of the ARRA sunset, a household is not entitled to a fair hearing due to the decrease in benefits because it is the result of a change in federal law. However, a household is entitled to a hearing if they believe the state improperly calculated their benefits. A fair hearing request can be denied to households that are merely disputing the fact that their benefits were reduced as a result of the ARRA sunset.

The notice to FNS recipients of a possible change in benefits and their right to request a hearing is available for public view on the N.C. Division of Social Services website at www.ncdhhs.gov/dss/pubnotice/index.htm.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at cberendt@civitasmedia.com.

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