Citizen Staff Writer
The Arizona Republic
and SHERYL KORNMAN
Arizona has added 123,000 food-stamp recipients since the recession began in December 2007.
The growing number of individuals on the food stamp roster gives the state one of the nation’s fastest-growing caseloads of food stamp recipients.
In October 2007, more than 500,000 individuals received food stamp assistance statewide, Liz Barker Alvarez, spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic Security, said Friday. The department administers the program.
By last October, that number had grown by 22 percent, to 706,577 statewide.
Tens of thousands more Arizonans are eligible for food assistance, federal officials estimate.
In Pima County, the number of food stamp recipients grew from 98,211 in October 2007 to 116,297 last October, an increase of 20 percent.
In Pima County, the average allotment to a family receiving food stamps is $255.37 monthly, Alvarez said.
As the recession deepens with no end in sight, officials across Arizona and the nation are likely to see increasing requests for help in obtaining food, the most basic of needs.
The millions of additional people turning now to food stamps are putting a further strain on taxpayers.
Marco Liu, who heads the food-stamp program for DES, said many of Arizona’s new recipients have lost work or had their hours cut, pushing them to seek help.
“It really is a combination of things,” he said, adding that many of the state’s recipients work but still meet federal income criteria to qualify.
This year, a person making less than $14,000 or a family of four earning less than about $29,000 can qualify for food stamps.
Arizona’s caseload spike parallels its steep job losses.
The state ranks third in the country in the number of jobs lost since 2007. In that year, when the nation’s food-stamp list shrank nearly 1 percent, Arizona’s caseload grew nearly 1 percent. In 2008, the nation’s rolls grew 7.3 percent while Arizona’s grew 15.2 percent, records show.
The price of the program also has shot up rapidly. Last year, Arizonans received more than $63 million in food-stamp aid, compared with less than $20 million in 2001. The increase, which far outpaced the state’s population growth, stemmed from a rise in both federal funding and number of applicants.
Like many states, Arizona has sought to enroll more recipients. Liu said that’s partly because the state pays only some administrative costs and, unlike with some federal programs, everyone who is eligible is entitled to receive aid.
Cynthia Zwick, executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association, said the state has fallen far short in its efforts to reach everyone who is eligible. Two years ago, the Legislature trimmed $50,000 in funds for outreach by her organization, Zwick said. With the loss of federal matching funds, she estimated, her budget for food-stamp outreach dropped to $57,000 from $157,000.
“It’s wholly inadequate to do a good job,” Zwick said. “What it means, practically, is that many families that are eligible for the benefit aren’t finding out about it. It has been underenrolled in Arizona for years.”
Liu said Arizona would like to emulate Oregon’s outreach efforts, but U.S. Department of Agriculture records suggest the states are far apart in what they are willing to spend. Arizona set aside $28,500 in 2008 for outreach, compared with Oregon’s $433,000. The federal government matches the funds.
Federal reports show 39 percent of eligible Arizonans did not participate in the program in 2006, the latest period studied by the USDA. By comparison, 15 percent of eligible Oregonians didn’t participate. Nationally, 33 percent of those eligible do not participate, the USDA reports.
The program is limited to Americans and some legal immigrants and is based on the number of people requiring assistance in each family. Those receiving assistance earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line. They can buy food but not other items such as cigarettes or alcohol, using a debit card issued to them.
$3.40 in aid per day
Despite the program’s rising costs, those who receive the aid find it doesn’t go far.
For years, the program’s aid covered enough to ensure that recipients could afford the “Thrifty Food Plan,” a low-cost, minimally acceptable diet established by the USDA. But since 1996, assistance has fallen increasingly short of covering what is needed to follow the diet, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based organization that advocates for the poor.
In 2008, the average monthly benefit per person was about $102, USDA figures show. That amounts to less than $3.40 in aid per day. Liu said other initiatives help meet the area’s needs, such as welfare plans, food banks and subsidized lunches for students.
Do I qualify?
The state provides a Web tool to help Arizonans find out if they might qualify for more than two dozen government programs, from food stamps to emergency cash assistance. Go to