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Originally published July 17, 2013 at 9:36 PM | Page modified July 18, 2013 at 1:25 PM

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Ballooning food-stamp rolls highlight ideological divide

The number of Washington residents receiving food stamps has doubled in past five years, largely because of the recession. Whether you’re reassured by the public aid or troubled by the spending is the crux of an ideological battle in Congress over the farm bill.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

Food stamps: the basics

More than 1.1 million Washingtonians — one in every six residents — collects food stamps.

Eligibility

In Washington, anyone who earns less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level can qualify for benefits. A family of four earning up to $47,100 is eligible. A four-person household can get up to $668 a month, but benefits diminish steeply beyond minimal incomes. For instance, a full-time worker without dependents who earns the state minimum wage of $9.19 an hour can collect $16 a month. In 2012, monthly benefits averaged $128 per person.

Verification

You can apply online (washingtonconnection.org). Applicants must provide proof of identity, Social Security numbers and other documents; income is verified through pay stubs or by calling employers. Undocumented immigrants, most college students and workers on strike are ineligible. Legal permanent residents with green cards have to wait five years, though they can qualify for 75 percent of federal benefits through the state before then.

Benefits

The program deposits benefits every month into recipients’ electronic benefit cards, which are used like debit cards. Nonfood purchases are prohibited, as are hot prepared foods.

Source: Washington State Department of Social and Health Services

WASHINGTON — Every month, taxpayers foot $526 worth of grocery bills for Davida Norrell and her two teenage daughters. It’s the amount the Tacoma Community College student and single mother collects in federally funded food-stamp benefits.

That works out to $17.50 a day for the household. Norrell stretches those dollars with hourlong bus rides to the Walmart in Lakewood for discount shopping and periodic forays to food banks. Usually, she makes it two weeks into the month before depleting her food-stamp allotment.

The money “seems like a lot, but it isn’t. My daughters are 16 and 17 and eat a lot,” Norrell, 46, said.

What you may think of that sum — or whether you believe Norrell and her girls should be entitled to benefits at all — goes to the crux of an ideological clash in Congress last week. Without a single Democratic vote, House Republicans passed a farm bill stripped of its main component, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name of the program that helps poor Americans buy groceries.

Instead, the GOP reauthorized only the portion dealing with subsidies to farmers, which accounts for just 20 percent of spending in the farm bill.

The vote came three weeks after House Republicans who wanted deeper cuts to food stamps helped defeat the broader farm bill.

Even in a Congress locked in partisan warfare, the fight over food stamps stands out for its high-relief contrast of values.

Many Democrats regard food stamps as essential public assistance for those without private lifelines. With 1996 reforms having done away with welfare as an entitlement program, automatically available to anyone poor enough, food stamps remain one of the only guaranteed safety nets for low-income Americans.

Some Republicans see it differently. They are troubled by the dramatic growth in food-stamp spending. The federal government last year paid $74.6 billion in benefits to more than 47 million people, more than double what it provided in 2008.

Partisan divide

In Washington state, one in every six residents — or 1.1 million people, 39 percent of them children — received the food assistance in 2012.

The recession, which eliminated jobs and wiped out savings, largely drove that increase. So did a temporary 13.6 percent hike in benefits. And in Washington’s case, state officials in 2008 took advantage of a federal rule to loosen eligibility requirements to include people earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 130 percent.

Conservative Republicans warn of encouraging dependency and potential fraud in the program. They accuse the U.S. Department of Agriculture of enrolling eligible beneficiaries too aggressively, foisting nutritional assistance on people who may not need it.

Josh Withrow, legislative-affairs manager for FreedomWorks, a conservative grass-roots group in Washington, D.C., argues it’s wrong to always equate low income with hunger.

Poor people automatically qualify for food stamps “without any investigation into what their actual physical needs are,” he said. “It’s so easy to get into.”

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, a liberal Democrat from Seattle, said Republican objections to food stamps are an undisguised attempt to dismantle safety nets. Conservatives, he said, already helped roll back extended unemployment benefits for Americans out of work and aim to turn Medicare into a private voucher plan.

“I know they want to kill (food stamps) as an entitlement,” he said. “They’re doing it out in the open. I’d like for them to take their clothes off in public and let people see what they really are.”

Stretched thin

For Norrell and her daughters, the monthly food-stamp allotment — called Basic Food in Washington and loaded into what looks like a debit card — provides a buffer against life’s stress and privation.

They pay $350 a month to rent two rooms in a friend’s house in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. Norrell feels uncomfortable using the kitchen, so cooking mostly means microwaving. That’s still better than living in Norrell’s van, which the three have done, or getting into a shelter, which Norrell was unable to secure.

Norrell gets no child support from her ex-husband. Unemployed, she’s training for jobs in medical offices and struggling to keep up with students half her age. Her car died, stranding her far from grocery stores other than Safeway, which she finds too pricey. Norrell said food stamps barely cover three meals a day, let alone occasional avocados or fresh salads.

“It might (be enough) if we ate noodles and potatoes all the time. But a girl needs her fresh veggies and some meat,” she said. “It has been hard.”

In Washington, women now make up 55 percent of the adult food-stamp clients, and 61 percent of the adults are white. Since the U.S. financial crisis in 2008, residents receiving food stamps collectively have become older, more white and more male.

For three years, Johnny Gordon of Puyallup has relied on food stamps for sustenance. A former chef, Gordon, 39, is studying information technology through Tacoma Community College’s Help Desk certificate program.

Gordon moved from South Carolina to Washington to take care of his late mother. A taxpayer since age 18, he said he applied for the assistance with reluctance.

Gordon, who is single and works the occasional odd job, qualifies for the maximum monthly benefit worth $200. Though students generally do not qualify for food stamps, Gordon is attending school through a federally funded program designed to get people off food assistance.

He relies on bargain hunting — and a small appetite — to stretch his benefits.

“Sometimes Safeway will sell me meat that’s about to spoil or starting to discolor for 30 to 50 percent off. I can make a meatloaf and eat it for up to four days,” Gordon said. “I only weigh 135 pounds so I don’t need to eat a lot.”

What’s next

The next step in the fate of food stamps rests with conservatives in the House. In June, five dozen of them sided with Democrats to defeat the broader farm bill. Democrats believed rolling back food assistance spending by $2 billion a year to 2010 levels went too far; the GOP members believed it didn’t go far enough.

If the Senate and the House are unable to reauthorize the program, current eligibility rules will stand unchanged. However, the 13.6 percent temporary increase in benefits authorized as part of the federal stimulus plan will expire at the end of October as scheduled.

Gordon fears partisan conflict could weaken a safety net for Americans who have little else. He knew he could never afford to retire after a lifetime of working in restaurants. So he’s switching careers, and counting on temporary aid to make it.

“I don’t think it’s fair or right to cut off my food benefits,” he said. “Without it, I would be in bad shape.”

Kyung M. Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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