Jennifer Smith is a 23-year-old tattoo artist.
Jackie Maxwell is a 34-year-old mother of five.
Carl Smith is a 48-year-old transplant from Columbus.
All three are white. Maxwell lives in a rural area. Carl Smith lives in the city and has a job. Jennifer Smith is unemployed and has a young child.
Despite different backgrounds, all three area residents receive or soon will receive food stamps.
All three said food stamps have helped them through tough times.
Poverty and hunger have always affected a diverse population, and Ohioans of all races, ages and parts of the state receive food assistance. This runs counter to what experts say is a stereotypical view of food stamp recipients — that they are mostly inner-city minorities.
About two-thirds of Ohioans who receive food assistance are white, and many live in suburban or rural areas, according to data obtained by the Dayton Daily News. Food stamp recipients include children, the elderly, veterans and people with college educations and jobs.
As Congress fights over proposed cuts to food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, some advocacy groups are highlighting how food stamps are important to people from all communities. Advocates for the poor said program cuts could hurt vulnerable families and overtax food pantries.
But critics said the fact that food stamps help all types of people is no excuse to oppose reforms in the program that would reign in record levels of spending and promote self-sufficiency. House Republicans are attempting to overhaul the food stamp program by separating it from the farm program and possibly tightening eligibility and adding more work requirements. Democrats are opposed to significant changes and are seeking a resolution before the September deadline.
Toll on families
Jennifer Smith worked as a tattoo artist until earlier this year, when her employer went out of business.
Smith, who has a 3-year-old child, said she receives food stamps and has received them off and on when she cannot find work and money is tight.
She said her fiance works part time and she hopes to find work soon. But she has a child to support, and she relies on food stamps and groceries from a local food pantry to stock the fridge.
“The food bank helps stretch the food (benefits) out,” she said.
Jackie Maxwell, who lives in German Twp., said her family will start receiving food stamps again next month after going several years without them.
Maxwell has income from her deceased father’s pension. But she said her family’s bills have become unmanageable, mostly as a result of her giving birth to triplets in 2011. She has five children.
Maxwell said she will soon look for work in sales or retail, but food stamps will help feed her family in the interim. She said feeding her family of seven costs about $1,000 per month.
“It’s not like we intentionally had triplets, but we tried for one more child and got three,” she said. “And it’s just hard out there.”
Children account for about 42 percent of food stamp recipients in Ohio, according to data from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
In June, about 43 percent of recipients were children in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties, the data shows.
The food stamp program is a crucial part of the government’s safety net that helps reduce child poverty and improves food security in low-income households, said Curtis Skinner, director of the family economic security program at the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University in New York.
Faces of need
Food benefits help improve child development and child health, and many children receive benefits because low-income families often have more children, and many poor children live in single-parent homes, Skinner said.
But poverty is pervasive, and the economic downturn squeezed many middle-class families, he said. A growing number of poor Americans live in the suburbs, have higher levels of education and reside in two-parent households.
Although poverty transcends race and geography, too often urban minorities serve as the face of hunger and food stamps, Skinner said.
“This was never correct, but people link poverty with big cities, with minority groups, with people who don’t work — these are just myths,” he said. “We are seeing the most growth in poverty in the suburbs … and we’re seeing increases in poverty rates in families where a parent has a college degree.”
For decades, there have been misconceptions and stereotypes about the poor that have very little to do with reality, said Keith Kilty, professor emeritus at the Ohio State University College of Social Work.
Stereotypes include the poor being lazy, the poor not wanting to work and the poor being mostly minorities, he said.
Poverty rates certainly are higher among blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups. But Kilty said white people account for the majority of poor people in Ohio and nationwide because they greatly outnumber minorities.
A greater portion of minorities receive food assistance, but most food stamp recipients are white.
In June, about 1.9 million Ohioans received food stamps, and about 1.25 million (or 65 percent) were white, according to state data. One-third of recipients were black.
Hispanics are counted and categorized by the state as an ethnicity and not a race. But about 3 percent of food stamp recipients in the state are Hispanic.
Last month, about 222,015 residents received food assistance in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties, the data show. About 69 percent were white and 29 percent were black. About 2 percent were Hispanic.
In this region and Ohio, about 83 percent of residents are white.
Stereotypes about the poor affect public opinion of government aid programs, Kilty said.
Most poor people choose to work when they can find it, but the labor market is extremely tight and job opportunities are scarce, Kilty said.
“We’ve developed a really negative attitude of the poor,” he said. “There is this attitude that people are getting something for nothing and don’t really deserve it.”
About 15 percent of food stamp recipients in the region and statewide have jobs, according to state data.
Carl Smith left his maintenance job two hours early Wednesday so he could ride his bike to the food pantry at St. Vincent de Paul in Dayton in hopes of picking up some groceries.
But Smith, who works at a fast-food restaurant, left empty-handed. The pantry ended food services about 15 minutes before he arrived.
“I guess I’ll cut it close this month and deal with what I’ve got,” he said. “I got off work two hours early to get over here — I lost two hours of pay, and I didn’t get nothing. … But hey, there are probably worse cases than mine. There probably was a couple who tried to get food after me with five kids that were turned away.”
Smith earns minimum wage, and he works about 22 to 25 hours each week. He said he would like to work more, but the hours are not available.
Smith said much of his paycheck goes to child support and covering rent at the rooming house where he lives.
“If I go without a paycheck for two weeks, I don’t have a home and I don’t have a roof over my head,” he said. “I work to survive.”
There was a long line at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry Wednesday, and some advocates said they fear food lines will get longer across the country if Congress cuts funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The farm bill expires in September, but the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate are fighting over reauthorization of the bill. The food stamp program has been included in the farm bill for 40 years, but the two houses of Congress are battling over its inclusion and proposed cuts to the program.
Some advocates said budget cuts could reduce benefits to recipients, which are already fairly low at about $132 per month in Ohio.
Slashing funding to the federal food stamp program would also put more stress on food banks and other private feeding services, many of which are already struggling to keep up with demand, advocates said.
“Cuts in (the federal food stamp program) would cause even more devastation to a food safety network that is feeding those who otherwise would not be able to make ends meet,” said Michelle Riley, CEO of the Foodbank Inc. in Dayton.
$80 billion program
Poverty is everywhere, but studies have shown that Dayton has the fourth-highest food hardship rate among the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, Riley said. She also said the food stamp program accounts for only 2 percent of the federal budget.
But some conservative groups said while food stamps help needy families, the program needs more accountability.
Even food stamp recipients interviewed by this newspaper said they believe some people misuse food benefits.
“Sometimes people can improve their situations on their own, but there is a lack of motivation,” Maxwell said. “I do believe (the program) is taken advantage of. … People need to help each other, but people also need to help themselves.”
Reforms to the program are needed, such as creating some work requirements for able-bodied adults to promote self-sufficiency, said Rachel Sheffield, policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
About half of U.S. households that receive food stamps have an able-bodied adult, and of those households, about half do not work, she said.
“Those who are able-bodied should be required to work or prepare for work, or at least look for work,” she said.
The Obama administration loosened eligibility requirements for food stamps, and more than 40 states overlook asset tests for people applying for benefits, she said. That means a family could have $25,000 sitting in the bank and still qualify for food stamps if their wages were low enough, she said.
The food stamp rolls have exploded in the last several years, and the program’s cost doubled between 2000 and 2007, and then doubled again under the Obama administration, she said. The program is almost $80 billion a year, and about 47 million people, or one in seven Americans, used SNAP last year. Those numbers have continued to climb.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress seem to see little middle ground on the issue of funding food stamps.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has ruled out extending the current farm bill, so the pressure now is on finding a solution before the Sept. 30 expiration date for the current farm bill.
The Senate has moved toward ironing out differences between both bills even as the House is still working on a nutrition bill to replace the one that was removed from the House bill in July.
There are several different routes to a final bill. The House and Senate could hash out an agreement using the Senate version of the nutrition program, which had more modest cuts to federal nutrition programs than the House had wanted.
But if both houses of Congress were to agree on that, it’s unlikely a final bill would pass the House. House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., has vowed not to put any piece of legislation on the floor unless he’s certain the majority party will support it. Some 60 Republicans didn’t vote for the original House farm bill because they thought the cuts weren’t deep enough, and would be unlikely to endorse more modest cuts.
It’s also possible that both the House and Senate will continue working on a new farm bill past the expiration date and rely instead on House appropriators — those who actually write the checks — to pay for federal farm and nutrition programs while the process continues.
“We will get a bill,’’ said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who will likely be on the joint House-Senate committee.
Sheffield said food stamps can be a disincentive to work, and proposed budget cuts to the program would be small in comparison to how much the program has grown.
“Food stamps is just one of 80 federally funded means-tested welfare programs,” Sheffield said. “It’s good to help people move from government dependence into jobs and encourage that.”
Contact this reporter at 937-225-0749 or email Cornelius.Frolik@coxinc.com.
Jessica Wehrman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
Dayton Daily News reporter Cornelius Frolik obtained and analyzed federal data about food stamp recipients in Ohio and in the region, and interviewed recipients, advocates for the poor and critics of the federal assistance program to bring you this story.