Public assistance designed to help pull people out of poverty and give them and equal footing to succeed has made tremendous progress since the beginning of the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Most programs come with the requirement recipients must be seeking employment, be in a training program or providing public service.
Lessening the requirements for food stamps and other programs along with a faltering economy and high unemployment rate has increased the number of recipients nationwide receiving assistance. The food program has evolved from the commodity distribution of surplus food to the popular food stamps where recipients have a choice of items they can buy. It has also brought criticism from many in the public sector because some receiving those benefits openly abuse the system.
Chris Watson, a social services specialist, at the Bryan County Department of Human Services, said the latest figures are from August 2011 and show a county total of 3,146 cases representing 7,391 individuals receiving food stamps. It’s a federally funded program administered by the state and while the state can set some policies it must meet the federal criteria. Oklahoma currently has a 95.8 percent accuracy rate in running the program. The average amount of food assistance for each case is $282.90 for a county total of $890,013 per month.
Eligibility guidelines determine who and how much a family will receive in food assistance, according to Watson. The most recent federal poverty guidelines are used as a factor in determining the qualifications of most programs. The minimum income is based on 130 percent of the federal requirements. A single person household eligibility begins at $14,521 and the amount they receive monthly will be determined by total income. A family of four with no income will be able to get $668 per month in food stamps. Applicants for any program offered by DHS must be U.S. citizens or legal aliens.
While the term food stamps is used, the old method of issuing stamps has been replaced with an access card and payment is made automatically each month. Restrictions on where they are to be used have also been relaxed to allow users to purchase items at convenience stores where in most cases prices are not competitive.
“There is abuse in any system,” said Watson. “We have caseworkers who work with clients, but each one has an estimated 400 cases. Anyone with knowledge of abuse should report it by calling 931-2500.”
Watson said the amount is also determined by family size in addition to income. If a caseworker feels they have been lied to they have the authority to conduct an in-home inspection, talk to neighbors, landlord and others. There have been cases where a man is living in the home and working but hasn’t been claimed by the recipient and his income would have made the family either ineligible or reduced assistance.
There is no reason any child should go to bed hungry if the adult receiving assistance is following the guidelines and shopping responsible, according to Watson. “Recipients buying junk food bothers a lot of people,” said Watson. “Federal guidelines allow these items and we have no choice but to comply with their regulations.”
There were cases where food stamps were being sold at discount prices for cash, but the use of access cards makes that a little harder. Watson pointed out that anyone knowingly purchasing items bought with food stamps can also be guilty of fraud along with the seller.
The department also administers the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) which is the only program where a recipient can use the access card to get cash, according to Watson. That program is a once in a lifetime assistance for 60 months to provide temporary support in meeting basic needs and training leading to employment for families with children.
The August 2011 figures show 70 cases of TANF in Bryan County serving 46 children with an average payment of $169.15 for a total of $11,841 per month. “This program is not intended to make the recipient dependent, but give them a chance to maintain a living while being trained or seeking gainful employment,” said Watson.
In addition the DHS also provided child care to 293 parents for a total cost of $87,036 per month. There are numerous other programs administered by the local department and can be found online at OKDHS.
Another vital program for children is administered by the Bryan County Health Department to insure the proper nutrition of children. The Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program targets pregnant women, infants and children up to age five, according to Norma Ramirez, administrative tech at the dept.
Women are placed on the program when they become pregnant and remain for six months past birth or one year if they are breast feeding. Eligible items are much more limited on this program and designed to give children the maximum amount of nutrition while cutting out unhealthy food items.
The amount a family can receive depends on income and for infants on formula the amount can be used up quickly, according to Ramirez. The program has grown by 20 percent in the past eight years which she attributes to the economy.
“We have very little abuse of the system because of the very nature of food items eligible,” said Ramirez. “We currently have 1,146 recipients of WIC of which 545 are children and 276 are infants, the remainder are pregnant or post pregnant women.”
Drug testing for welfare recipients has been a controversial issue in several states and the constitutionality is being questioned by several courts. Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law, Nov. 1, drug testing in Oklahoma which will be for TANF clients only and then when drug use is suspected.
According to Watson, the state house version was modified by the senate to limit the testing to TANF and only when drug use is suspected because to make it mandatory might be considered unconstitutional.
While the nation has an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent, Oklahoma has been able to keep figures at 5.3 percent and Bryan County is even better at 4.3 percent. Those figures don’t mean anything to someone who is unemployed and looking for work, but the assistance available will prevent anyone from going hungry and if it’s a matter of an emergency there are several food banks available to residents.