An increasing number of Idahoans are using food stamps as the state economic picture stays bleak, including a rise in people turning to the program for the first time. According to figures, 179,694 people are receiving food stamps in January, and one-third of eligible food stamp applicants during the past two years haven’t been on the program before, according to Russ Barron with the welfare division of the Department of Health And Welfare.
“Economic circumstances inevitably impact the number of people seeking help,” Barron told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Thursday. The tough economic times driving higher demand for state help are also leading to budget reductions for food stamps and other service programs. The division of welfare has had roughly $1.5 million in state general funds taken out of its budget since July. Barron said some services have been cut, but the food stamp program has kept up with increased demand due to improvements to its system of processing applications for benefits. He said other states have faced lawsuits and software glitches as food stamp applications have risen nationally. But Barron said Idaho’s efficiency gains are dimming. “Those improvements can only take us so far,” he said. “It’s no secret that our caseloads climb every month to record highs.”
“This is an issue that we’re all concerned about,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. Sandpoint Republican Sen. Shawn Keough wanted to make sure that state funds are making their way to Idahoans seeking services. Barron told lawmakers that his staff is often working 9-10 hours a day. Still, he said some offices are shutting off phone lines at 2 or 3 p.m. to avoid carrying a backlog over to the next day. Barron said that time crunch will only grow with the move to close DHW offices every other Friday afternoon, which begins Jan. 22.
“Taking every other Friday afternoon off is going to hit your staff hard,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle.
“We’ll find out Monday morning,” Barron said. “I know that working half a day on Friday is going to be a squeeze.” Barron said his department is dealing with furloughs and budget reductions as best as it can. “I’m trying to paint a picture of the reality that we are facing as a division and the people of Idaho are facing as well… We are seeing people needing our services who have never needed them before. These people are our friends, neighbors, relatives.”
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