Maria Lopez sat on a wooden bench beside her young daughter Thursday morning as the sounds of crying babies and voices filled the Human Services Agency headquarters in Merced.
Lopez, a 26-year-old single mother of four, works part-time at Rancho San Miguel, but her wages can only cover rent and bills. To feed her children Lopez needs the extra $200 a month she gets from food stamps. "It makes a lot of difference," she said. "Yeah, it's embarrassing, but like I said, it's helpful."
Lopez isn't alone in her need for food stamps. In fact, she's one of the fast expanding group of people who've gone on food stamps in Merced County in recent years.
It's no secret that Merced County is one of the state's poorest and hardest hit areas by the economic downturn -- unemployment hovers just below 20 percent and the poverty rate is more than 20 percent.
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But now another benchmark of the county's woes is the massive number of people who receive federally funded food stamps. And that need is only growing.
In fact, July posted the highest food stamp enrollment in recent history -- almost 50,000 people in Merced County. That's nearly a quarter of the county's population.
"The increase has been extreme," said Nicole Pollack, deputy director of the county's HSA, which administers the federal food stamp program. In the last three years, their rolls have jumped by 30 percent, she said.
While social service professionals say that a number of factors have helped increase the population of people using food stamps -- increased outreach, less stringent eligibility rules and easier ways to sign up -- the economic downturn is the main culprit.
Whatever the reason, the numbers speak for themselves.
In the last four years the number of people receiving food stamps has skyrocketed, reaching record highs in June and July.
In June 2007, for instance, 31,186 people were on food stamps. In June 2010 that number was 47,068. And in July the number went even higher to 47,359.
The last time the county's numbers reached near that high was in June 1995 when 45,954 people were using food stamps.
Merced County is far from alone in seeing such soaring statistics.
Statewide, the numbers are up as well. In 2007 annual average household participation in the program was more than 800,000. In 2009 that number jumped to more than 1 million households.
Nationally in June more than 41 million Americans were on food stamps. The previous month the number of people on food stamps reached an all time high since the program began in 1969.
George Manalo-LeClair, a spokesman for California Food Policy Advocates, a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Oakland, said that after welfare reform was enacted in 1996, food stamp use rose as the number of welfare recipients shrank. But, he added, the recent rise looks a lot like similar periods of economic uncertainty. Food stamp use usually tracks unemployment numbers.
But the increase in recent years came about for both obvious and not so obvious reasons.
Aside from the recession -- which is probably the main reason for the peak -- several other factors have contributed to the high numbers in Merced and other places, said Manalo-LeClair. One factor is the changes in eligibility that have helped increase the number of food stamp enrollees. "Many more families are eligible for food stamps than what they think," he said. For instance, the ownership of a car or a house doesn't necessarily exclude you from the program.
Another factor is innovations made on the local level. Merced County in particular has pioneered an online signup program called C4Yourself.com, where people can sign up for Medi-Cal, CalWORKs and food stamps online. "Merced has been a leader," said Manalo-LeClair.
Ana Pagan, director of Merced County's HSA, agreed that the jump in participants isn't only because of the recession. New outreach and less stringent eligibility rules have helped expand participation. But she stressed that a rise in food stamp usage doesn't correspond to welfare cases, which have stayed fairly static in Merced County since welfare reform reduced the rolls. "The increase in food stamp utilization is multifaceted and isn't really tied to an increase in welfare cases," she said, "For instance, the requirements for eligibility were expanded when obesity was declared a public health issue." She added that the food stamp program -- administered through the Department of Agriculture -- is actually a farm subsidy that funnels public money into local economies through food stamps.
Pagan's emphasis on separating food stamps from welfare emerges from solid logic.
The stigma often associated with food stamps and other social services came from a welfare system -- reformed 14 years ago -- that used to give cash aid for life and additional money for each child born, said Pollack. That system is now all but gone. "The stigma still exists from that time, but the program has dramatically changed since then," said Pollack.
Manalo-LeClair said the economic impact of food stamps has also often been misunderstood. According to the USDA, he said, every food stamp dollar generates $1.84 in economic activity. So there's a ripple effect on the local economy, he said. In July alone, more than $6 million in food stamps were given out in Merced County. The federal stimulus package has also helped, said Manalo-LeClair. It increased the dollar amount for each food stamp recipient as a way to pump cash into the local economy.
No matter what the cause of the jump in participants or the impact of the program, for many the stigma of food stamps as a handout instead of a hand up still lingers.
On Thursday at the county HSA office, another mother, a 28-year-old who didn't want to give her name because she was embarrassed, was waiting to sign up for food stamps for the first time. For the past seven months she's been looking for work -- to no avail. Now, embarrassment aside, she's signing up for food stamps. She said it's hard to come and ask for help when you are a believer in the dictum: God helps those who help themselves. Despite her humiliation and belief in self-help, she's glad there's a safety net to catch her if she falls.
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.