By MAUREEN PICHÉ
St. Lawrence County families are increasingly having a hard time putting food on the table, with the number of food stamp recipients growing by nearly 60 percent in the past three years.
From August 2007 to August 2010, food stamp recipients in the county leapt from 8,893 individuals in 2007 to 14,108 this year, according to statistics provided by the county Department of Social Services.
“These are really enormous increases,” said Christopher Rediehs, St. Lawrence County Social Services Commissioner. “These are difficult times for people in the county.”
To qualify for food stamps, a family of four without elderly or disabled members needs to earn $28,668 or less, according to county guidelines.
Two significant factors appear to be contributing to the numbers: the county is one of the poorest in the state with one of the highest unemployment rates, according to John F. Tenbusch, planner with the St. Lawrence County Planning Office.
“Poverty in our county has been persistently high (16.9 percent in 1999; 18 percent in 2009). This compares with New York State data (14.2 percent in 2009; 14.5 percent in 2000),” said Tenbusch in an e-mail, quoting statistics from the American Factfinder (factfinder.census.gov).
He said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has currently set the poverty level at $22,050 for the average family of four.
Tenbusch said the census site indicates per capita income in St. Lawrence County has remained significantly low ($20,488 in 2009; $15,728 in 2000). This compares with state data ($30,645 in 2009; $23,389 in 2000).
And June and August state Department of Labor reports indicated St. Lawrence County had the highest unemployment rate in the state outside of New York City.
“It just hasn’t risen anywhere near as much as the rest of the state,” Tenbusch said in an interview. “We have lost high-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs at places like General Motors and Alcoa (in Massena), but there’s been an increase in low-paying service jobs,” such as retail, he added.
The impact at the local level is being felt at food banks in the greater Canton-Potsdam area.
Shari Wilcox, Director of the Canton Church and Community Program says she’s seeing an increase in “long range income problems” from her clients, who also come from DeKalb, Claire, Russell, Hermon and Rensselaer Falls.
“The kinds of problems I see are usually solvable things, like the car broke down, or someone needs help with rent,” she said. “Now, it’s something like: the husband’s lost his job, and the family is living on the wife’s part-time income.
“They’re not only missing the requirements of life, but they’re not sure where the money will come from next,” she added.
Families who ask her for help are now more likely to have incomes just barely at or above food stamp levels. She also notices a change in population. Young people who could once survive on social services benefits are moving away—bunking in with family until times are better and jobs return to the area. She’s seeing an increase in older people with children who are newly laid-off and senior citizens.
And Wilcox says she’s struggling to meet clients’ needs. Food drives are not pulling in as much as past years, and cash donations from the average contributor are down.
“I’m resorting to a lot of things like Tuna Helper to get some protein for people,” she said. Donations of cash and non-perishables are always very welcome, she added.
Food Stamps First
Sandra Merchant, Director of the Potsdam Neighborhood Center, says she hasn’t seen a dramatic change in the number of clients, but there has been a gradual increase in the number of new families requesting food services. Her center also serves Madrid, Hopkinton, Stockholm and Norwood.
She noted the increase in food stamp recipients would have a direct effect on the number of people seeking food from the center.
“They would use the food stamps first, then come to us,” she explained.
And, she pointed out, it’s now become even easier for people to access food stamps. Jefferson County’s Nutrition Outreach and Education Program received grant funding to bring the stamps right to a client’s door in St. Lawrence County, removing the possible travel difficulties and stigma of going to the Canton social services office.