Miss. food stamp recipients up 27% in just 2 years

By Gary Pettus/The Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON — Charles Penton keeps a log of the jobs he has asked for since moving his family to Mississippi a couple of months ago.

The number of turndowns is about 15 or 20 now, said the unemployed security guard. His wife works part time, but he’s still looking.

Meanwhile, his family of four, including two school-age children, must eat.

“So, rather than put a strain on the family as far as having enough food, we applied for food stamps,” he said. “It’s been a godsend.”

Apparently, that is the case for more than 563,000 Mississippians, or one in every five.

The food-stamp participation number, as reported for October and the latest available data from the Department of Human Services, is up by almost 91,000 compared to October 2008. That’s a spike of more than 19 percent.

It’s up by more than 121,000 compared to October two years ago, a 27 percent rise.

“The huge jump has been in the last 12 months, to tell you the truth,” said Cheryl Starkman, director of the Division of Economic Assistance for DHS. “I have 37 years with DHS, and we’re at the highest caseload I’ve ever seen. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it. The numbers just keep creeping up every month.”

Across the country, more than 37 million Americans – a record number – have turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program.

That’s about one of every eight Americans, a leap of about 18 percent from a year ago. “Which is phenomenal,” Starkman said.

Job scarcity is the reason, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program of subsidies for retail-food purchases.

In this state, the October jobless rate climbed to 9.5 percent from September’s rate of 8.9 percent, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security reported last month.

“People are on food stamps because they really need the help,” said Warren Yoder, executive director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, a nonprofit advocacy group for the disadvantaged.

“The program has always been important for families trying to make it on a part-time or low-wage job. Now it’s more important for families who have never needed this kind of help before.

“Only about one-fourth of those who are unemployed get unemployment insurance, and those who do don’t get enough to support a family. Food stamps is the program that has been picking up the slack. So, thank God for food stamps.

“Otherwise, we would have families who are just totally desperate,” Yoder said.

Penton, 40, met desperation when he and his wife, Trudy, moved from New Orleans to be with her parents in Rankin County.

Trudy Penton had been studying for her doctorate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, while Charles worked there as a security guard.

“It was a good job, but we weren’t making a lot of money,” Charles Penton said. The kids wanted to be close to family in Mississippi, and my wife can finish her degree anywhere in the country. So we moved. Trudy found a part-time job at one of the public libraries here. But, for me, it’s really been a struggle. We didn’t think it would be that hard to find work.”

The Pentons now receive about $640 a month in food stamps, Charles Penton said.

“We’re staying with my in-laws. So the food stamps have taken a burden off us and off them as far as supporting us.”

While food stamps are a by-product of a faltering economy, their use can protect some local jobs, said Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, an advocate for low- to moderate-income families.

“Making sure people have enough to eat is the most important part of food-stamp assistance,” he said. “But whenever someone needs that assistance, they are going to spend the money at the local grocery store. As local dollars turn over, that supports jobs in the local economy.”

As for Penton, he prefers to find one of those jobs in Mississippi, he said.

“We love Mississippi people and the Mississippi way of life,” he said. “So, if anybody needs a hard worker, please call me. I want to take care of my family.

“I want to get to a point where I can give back to those who helped us.”