Ohio families receiving food stamps could get an unwelcome surprise come January: $50 less every month in assistance.
For the 869,000 households enrolled in the program for the poorest Ohioans, that could amount to about $520 million annually out of the grocery budgets.
Because of the way the federal government calculates utility expenses for people receiving the benefit, a mild winter nationwide last year, and a lower price for natural gas, many families could experience a significant cut in aid, those familiar with the program say.
Recipients should get a letter from the state Department of Job and Family Services this month explaining the change, said Ben Johnson, a spokesman for the agency.
Meanwhile, food banks and others that distribute food assistance are bracing for increased demand.
“They are going to increase hunger among our most vulnerable — working families, seniors, children, and persons with disabilities,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
Ms. Hamler-Fugitt said her organization is particularly concerned that some seniors or persons with disabilities who have a low benefit amount could lose all their monthly assistance.
“We’re really worried about [the change],” she said.
What’s called the “standard utility allowance” — the amount deducted from a person’s income when the state determines his or her eligibility for the food stamp program — will decrease by $166 for 2013, translating to about $50 less per household in food assistance. State Job and Family Services officials tried to appeal the change to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but the USDA denied the request.
USDA officials did not respond to requests from The Blade for comment.
State and county Job and Family Services officials say there is little they can do other than letting their clients and community partners who provide food assistance know about the changes.
“This is a federal issue,” said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Directors’ Association. “It is what it is. They have a formula. ... We just think it is going to be really hard on families and individuals. They will see significantly less money starting in January.”
The average food-stamp recipient receives $138 per person, per month, according to state statistics. As of August, more than 1.7 million individual Ohioans, or about 869,000 families, received the assistance. A total of $3 billion in benefits was issued in 2011 in Ohio; the program is federally funded.
In Lucas County, about 91,000 people — 46,000 households — receive the benefit. Fifty fewer dollars per household per month would amount to about $27 million annually.
“It’s a concern,” said Deb Ortiz-Flores, director of Lucas County’s Job and Family Services agency. “Fifty dollars can buy quite a bit of food.”
Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in southeastern Ohio, said the loss of funds will cause a true hardship.
“Fifty dollars would be devastating” to families, he said. “These are folks that have already fallen off the fiscal cliff.” Mr. Frech added that many of his agency’s clients are not affected by lower natural gas prices.
“The majority of folks [here] don’t heat with natural gas in the first place,” he said. “They heat with fuel oil and propane.”
The Rev. Steve Anthony, executive director of Toledo Area Ministries, said, “It will put a strain on all organizations that provide emergency food. We’re going to have to find alternatives. We can’t pull food or money out of thin air.”
TAM runs the Feed Your Neighbor program, which has 13 food pantries in Toledo and surrounding suburbs.
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