An abrupt drop in food stamp use that had North Carolina leading the nation in the rate of people leaving the program turned out to be a fiction.
Since last May, federal reports showed steep year-over-year drops in people enrolled in food stamps in North Carolina, with the participation rate declining faster than in any other state. In September 2017, the state reported fewer than a million people enrolled in food stamps, a low not seen since 2008 and one that represented a 40 percent decrease over 12 months.
New restrictions on food stamps couldn’t account for the dramatic drop. Between July 2016 and August 2017, 17,871 people in North Carolina were kicked off food stamps because they didn’t meet a new state work requirement, according to state figures obtained through a public records request. But that’s a small fraction of the decrease.
Asked in November about the big changes, the state Department of Health and Human Services, which collects the information, said it was partially because of the low unemployment rate. The state unemployment rate last November was 4.3 percent, compared to 4.1 percent nationally.
But preliminary state numbers for November and December, which have not yet shown up in federal reports, showed food stamp enrollment shooting back up to more than 1.4 million people. DHHS said last week that it had been reporting inaccurate numbers of individuals using food stamps and removed the data from its website pending corrections.
The state’s errors are part of national reports, so calculations of U.S. food stamp use are off, too.
Food stamps, formally called SNAP for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a federal program for low-income individuals and families.
Food stamp recipients must meet income guidelines to qualify. A single person can make no more than $1,307 a month.
North Carolina’s legislature in 2015 reinstated a federal requirement that limits adults younger than 50 who don’t have children to three months of food stamps unless they prove they’re working, volunteering or taking classes at least 20 hours a week. The requirement started for 23 mostly urban counties in January 2016, with the remaining 77 counties added in July 1 of that year.
Advocates for poor people were worried that adults in rural counties with high unemployment rates would go hungry because they would be unable to find paid or volunteer work.
Betsy Crites, one of the coordinators of End Hunger Durham, said accurate data “is extremely important,” because the numbers drive legislative policies and grassroots action.
“We try to draw conclusions from the data,” she said. “If it’s dropped significantly, we need to know why. Are people struggling to put food on their table? Or does it mean a huge proportion of the population suddenly got jobs and worked their way out of SNAP?”
It’s not clear whether adults cut off from food stamps have increased their reliance on food pantries.
Teresa Dew Kelly, executive director of Christians United Outreach Center of Lee County, said the number of families using the food pantry has remained steady in the last two years. Nearly all of the food pantry’s customers qualify for food stamps, she said.
Lee County’s November unemployment rate stood at 5.1 percent. Between July 2016 and August 2017, 134 Lee County adults who didn’t meet work requirements lost their food stamps.
Greg Maynor, who helps run the Robeson County Church and Community Center, said more people have been using its food pantry over the last 18 months, but he couldn’t say whether it was because people lost their food stamps or because they are still struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
“When someone comes into our facility looking for food assistance, we don’t dig in to why they’re there,” he said.
Unemployment in Robeson County was 6.5 percent last November. From July 2016 to August 2017, 637 adults in the county who didn’t meet work requirements lost their food stamps.
Database editor David Raynor contributed.