Big Island food stamp use marching upward


Unemployment might be inching downward and construction and other markets showing signs of life. But the number of people lining up to receive state supplements for food purchases just keeps increasing.

Food stamp use has marched steadily upward in Hawaii County and around the state, bolstered by outreach campaigns to increase enrollment. In 2013, more than 187,000 people were on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, up from 88,848 in 2007, when the recession began.

Some 47,700 of those people are here on the Big Island.

Despite this increase in popularity, Hawaii still ranks 49th in the country for SNAP participation, according to a study last month by the Hawaii Appleseed Center For Law and Economic Justice. One eligible family out of three does not use the supplements, said Brandee Menino, CEO of Hope Services Hawaii, a statewide nonprofit based in Hilo that provides housing and outreach for the homeless.

“Key challenges are lack of awareness of eligibility, discomfort in the receipt of SNAP and barriers to applying,” said Menino in an email.

The total dollar value of benefits issued statewide soared in the past decade, from about $1.5 million to close to $4.8 million. While other states around the country saw decreases to their food stamps budgets last fall as 2009 stimulus money ran out, Hawaii received a slight increase because of high costs of living.

The state Department of Human Services was hit with a class action lawsuit in 2010 for not processing SNAP applications quickly enough. To meet the burgeoning demand and conditions imposed by the court, the department implemented same-day processing and streamlined its operations. Federal stimulus money also funded increased outreach by DHS to potential beneficiaries of the program.

Earlier this year, Congress approved $8.6 billion in cuts to the federally funded program during the next decade in an effort to curtail spending on the increasingly popular program, but individual states have fought to keep the money.

The ranks of the state’s homeless also swelled in the years following the tumble of the housing market — from 6,000 to 8,700 people using shelters across the state. Use of shelters by people who are lifelong residents doubled in that time, from 1,411 to 2,761.

Hawaii residents face increased challenges paying market rent, and the state badly needs a larger inventory of affordable housing, Menino said.

The number of people using homeless shelters on Hawaii Island has remained fairly steady, however, between 500 and 600, according to DHS statistics.

Email Bret Yager at byager@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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