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Food stamp use down in Hall, but challenges remain for residents
A volunteer at the Good Samaritan Ministries of Northeast Georgia stacks boxes in the food pantry’s loading bay on Friday. The pantry distributed 1.4 million pounds of food to residents of northeast Georgia.

Work requirements have cut in half the number of single adults receiving food stamps in Hall County and in 23 other counties.

The number of able-bodied adults without dependents getting food stamps in Hall County fell from 529 people in 2016 to 264 at the start of 2017, according to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.

Single adults earning less than $1,287 a month are eligible for a maximum $194 in food assistance each month.

In January 2016, a federal waiver from work requirements that were created for federal welfare programs in the 1990s was removed from Hall, Gwinnett and Cobb counties because of their strong economies and low unemployment.

Hall County’s average unemployment rate in 2016 was 4.5 percent, slightly lower than the national average of 4.8 percent for the year. The county’s unemployment rate continues to fall and now sits at 3.9 percent.

But there’s another side to the county’s economic recovery. Even as use of federal benefits decreases and unemployment drops, the cost of living is rising.

Those in the lower-middle class and lower class of earners are finding it more difficult to pay their bills, from rent to groceries, and more of them are turning to charities and food pantries, according to the director of one of Hall County’s largest pantries.

The waiver from work requirements was drafted in 2009 because of the economic crisis that created the Great Recession and associated job losses. It lifted the requirement on states and counties that adults be involved in a “work activity” to receive more than three months of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, aka food stamps, in a 3-year period.

SNAP is entirely funded by the federal government as a pass-through to the states. Georgia gets more than $200 million each month for the benefits.

The state and federal government’s definition of work activity is broad and includes volunteer work, community service, job training and working for only a few hours every week, according to Lucy Smith, assistant division director of the Georgia Office of Family Independence.

Because a single adult is only eligible to receive three months of benefits without meeting the work requirement, Hall, Gwinnett and Cobb counties saw a steep drop in enrollment from January 2016 to the beginning of April 2016. More than 200 single adults in Hall County dropped out of the program from March to April last year.

At the start of this year, another 21 counties lost their waiver from the 1996 work requirements.

As a result, the number of able-bodied adults without dependents pulling SNAP benefits has fallen from 11,779 people on Jan. 1 to 4,258 at the beginning of April, a decrease of 63 percent.

The rest of the state is set to adopt work requirements for single adults by 2020, according to DFCS spokeswoman Mary Beth Lukich, which based on the existing trend will dramatically reduce the 93,779 able-bodied adults without dependents drawing SNAP benefits in 2017.

Meanwhile, statewide SNAP spending continues to decline.

In January 2016, Georgia delivered $245.7 million in taxpayer-funded benefits. By April 2016, that had declined to $215.7 million, a full $30 million. This year, food stamp spending sat at $205.6 million at the end of April. Most of the drop comes from fewer general food stamp recipients and not just single adults.

“We attribute a lot of this to the economy and the fact that there are just a lot more jobs available in Georgia,” Smith said.

For those in the upper-middle class and beyond — people who took a hit in the value of their homes and retirement accounts — the surge in growth in Georgia and Hall County has been cause for celebration. But among middle-income earners and below, pain is coming with growth.

Work requirements for taxpayer-funded benefits are intended to get people into the workforce, which can eventually push their income far enough above the federal poverty level to get them out of the SNAP system entirely.

For tens of thousands of people in Hall County and its bordering counties, there’s a significant gap between the federal poverty level and being truly self-sufficient.

The staff and volunteers at Good Samaritan Ministries of Northeast Georgia on McEver Road, one of the county’s largest food pantries, has seen a huge influx of the working poor living in this gray area.

“Last year, we took care of 65,000 (people),” said Alvin Bagwell, director of the food pantry. “When I first took over here five years ago, we were only helping 15,000 people a year.”

Thirty-six percent of the ministry’s clients are children, he noted.

“Most of these people have lower-paying jobs, and everything keeps going up and up and up,” he said. “Rent is a good thing to look at. You go out and try to rent a house now, what used to cost you $750, $800 will cost you $1,200 or $1,300 a month — if you can find a house to rent.”

Just an hour before close of business on Friday, the food pantry’s counseling waiting room was thick with people working their way into the charity’s system: an older white woman pinching a walking stick between her knees; a young Hispanic mother with a toddler teetering on her lap; a thin, bearded white man in a trucker hat and dark sunglasses; and other people in plastic chairs pushed against the walls of the small office, most of them in their 50s and 60s or young and with children.

“A lot of these people are not in the best of shape,” Bagwell said. “They could probably work a job — it would be tough on them.”

The ministry offers counseling, job-search assistance (the staff and volunteers get about 20 people hired every month) and other households goods in addition to food for those who are accepted into the system.

Demand for these services is increasing all the time.

This month, he’s gotten 63 new applications from people seeking access to the food pantry. Each application can represent one person or a family of 14. In June, the ministry had 167 new applications.

“It’s been a little bit more of a strain on us trying to satisfy the need because we always make sure that people get at least around 100 pounds of groceries (every 30 to 45 days),” Bagwell said.

This year, the pantry has given away 27 percent more groceries than in July 2016. Last year, Good Samaritan Ministries of Northeast Georgia gave away 1.4 million pounds of food.

Gainesville’s Georgia Mountain Food Bank has distributed 34 million pounds of food since it opened in 2008. Its executive director, Kay Blackstock, said the economy in Hall County continues to pinch people on the lower end of the economic scale.

And the politics wrapped up in SNAP funding, whether work requirements are appropriate, fair or even cruel, are beside the point when people are hungry and there’s a need to fill, she said.

“I just know this: Billions of pounds of food are thrown away in this country every year, and there’s no reason why anybody should be hungry,” Blackstock said.