HONOLULU (AP) - Lillie Gonzales does whatever it takes to provide for
three ravenous sons who live under her roof. She grows her own
vegetables at home on Kauai, runs her own small business and like a
record 42 million other Americans, she relies on food stamps.
Gonzales and her husband consistently qualify for
food stamps now that Hawaii and other states are quietly expanding
eligibility and offering the benefit to more working, moderate income
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reviewed
by The Associated Press shows that 32 states have adopted rules making
it easier to qualify for food stamps since 2007. In all, 38 states have
loosened eligibility standards.
Hawaii has gone farther than most, allowing a family like Gonzales' to earn up to $59,328 and still get food stamps.
Prior to an Oct. 1 increase, the income eligibility limit for a Hawaii family of five was $38,568 a year.
"If I didn't have food stamps, I would be buying
white rice and Spam every day," said Gonzales, whose Island Angels
business makes Hawaiian-style fabric angel ornaments, quilts, aprons and
Eligibility for food stamps varies from state to
state, with the 11 most generous states allowing families to apply if
their gross income is less than double the federal poverty line of
$22,050 for a family of four on the U.S. mainland. The threshold is
higher in Alaska and Hawaii.
With more than 1 in 8 Americans now on food stamps,
participation in the program has jumped about 70 percent from 26 million
in May 2007, while the nation's unemployment rate rose from 4.3 percent
to 9.2 percent through September of this year.
"We've seen a huge increase in participation due to the economic downturn," said Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. "That's the way this program was designed."
In addition to helping alleviate economic pressures,
many states embrace the popularity of food stamps because their cost --
$50 billion last year -- is paid entirely by the federal government.
States are only responsible for paying half of their programs'
Food stamps have been blasted by some Republicans in
this midterm election season as just another federal entitlement
program, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich framing the vote as a
choice between "the party of food stamps" and Republican policies that
Participants in the food stamp program,
technically called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,
receive a per person average of $133 per month to buy staples including
milk, bread and vegetables.
Shortly after Hawaii announced it was raising its
eligibility limits starting this month, three carloads of 10 seniors
drove to the Kauai Independent Food Bank to ask if they qualified. Nine
of them did, said Judy Lenthall, executive director for the food bank,
which helps people apply for food stamps.
"We saw an immediate and overwhelmingly wonderful response," Lenthall said. "It surprised us how fast it's spreading."
States that have relaxed food stamp eligibility
did so by moving to a system where applicants could qualify based on
their income, and their other assets such as real estate, vehicles and
savings accounts could be ignored.
Basing food stamps on income alone allows the newly
unemployed and the elderly to seek government food aid without having to
first sell their property or exhaust every dollar they've earned, said
Sue McGinn, director of the food stamp program in Colorado, which will
expand eligibility beginning in March.
"They won't have to wipe out their savings to apply for benefits," McGinn said.
Many of these states also raised income limits,
although applicants still have to show they're essentially living at the
poverty line after accounting for allowable deductions, including elder
medical expenses and child support.
"It helps moderate and low-income people who are struggling," said Stacy Dean
of the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"They're doing everything we want: they're working, paying all their
bills, taking care of their kids, and they still don't have enough money
at the end of the month to put food on the table."
Since 2000, the only states that haven't enacted the lower food stamp
eligibility requirements are Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas,
Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.
In Hawaii, where everything from milk to gasoline is typically the
highest in the nation, the changes are welcomed by Gonzales and others.
"As long as my kids have good food, that's all I care about," Gonzales said. "It makes a tremendous difference."