By Jennifer Loren, The Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- In Oklahoma a person must make less than $1,200 per month to qualify for food stamps. Right now there are more than 600,000 Oklahomans who fit that bill. According to Department of Human Services officials the numbers could get worse before they get better.
It's the middle of the night at Crest grocery store in Oklahoma City. Yet, shoppers armed with lengthy grocery lists line every single aisle. When the clock strikes midnight, it will be the first of the month. At that moment it's pay day for those shoppers. Their electronic benefit transfer cards, or EBT cards, are loaded with money. It's money from Oklahoma's SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). But you may know it as food stamps.
In Tulsa, the first of the month means long lines at Perry's Food Mart. It's a line that over time has grown longer than ever before.
In the past three years, the number of people receiving the benefits has skyrocketed. In 2008, there were 415,000 Oklahomans receiving food stamps. Now there are more than 600,000. That's more than the entire population of Oklahoma City. It's also an increase of 46 percent.
Melia Shuman is one of those thousands of food stamp recipients. In 2008 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Two days later she was laid off. Less than a week later the company she worked for no longer existed, leaving her high and dry.
"I didn't know how I was going to live. I didn't know how I was going to pay for a living. I didn't know how I was going to pay utilities. I didn't know what I was going to do for eating," said Melia Shuman.
Her only option, she said, was to apply for food stamps. For the past two years Shuman has been receiving the maximum individual food stamp allowance of $200 a month. She said that money alone would not be enough to pay for all of her food needs. To get by, she combines her SNAP money with donated food from local food pantries.
"You have to learn to budget. That's the only way you can make it through. Cause they give you the bare minimum," said Shuman.
Eventually she hopes to get off food stamps and onto permanent disability. But, she admits the large amounts of federal government spending makes her worry about the future of these programs.
Gerald Davis is a regional Director for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, which runs the food stamp program. He said the staff at his Tulsa office has been slammed with new clients.
"DHS has been asked to help and we have responded," said Davis.
Davis said food stamps are usually the last resort for people in financial trouble. To him that means times are tough in Oklahoma.
"Twenty-nine straight months of increase, record increase, that tells me that yeah, we're in a crisis," said Davis.
And this crisis could cost taxpayers a billion dollars this year. In 2008, Oklahoma received $485 million in federal food stamp funding. That paid the average recipient $97 a month. Now the average monthly payment is $130 per person, meaning Oklahoma is on track to receive $945 million in federal food stamp funding this year.
The Department of Human Services will only speculate as to what's behind the crisis. They have not compiled their data to give an exact reason. They speculate that Oklahoma's crisis is due to the late arrival of the nation's economic crisis here. They say it's all related to jobs.
"So many people have lost jobs or they've been reduced in the number of hours they can work," said Davis.
It appears unemployed Oklahomans are a major factor, but so are the working poor. In 2008, the state's unemployment rate was 4.2 percent. Add to that 50,000 more Oklahomans and now unemployment is at 7 percent. But 185,000 people enrolled in the food stamps program in that time. That means many of them have jobs and still are poor enough to qualify for food stamps.
Job or no job, poverty is spreading amongst Oklahomans. Sadly, many of the new food stamp recipients are children. Right now, a shocking 30 percent of Oklahoma's children are being fed through the food stamps program.