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Food stamp use on the rise in Galax

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Households receiving food stamps is gradually increasing

By April Wright, Reporter

The number of local households receiving food stamps is gradually increasing, according to Susan Clark, director of the Galax Department of Social Services.

With the state of the economy, it's hardly surprising that the number of those seeking assistance is growing.

As of December 2009, 924 households (or 1,767 people) received food stamp assistance, which is now being called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That's up from 854 households, or 1,664 people, at the beginning of last year.

It may not seem like that many, said Clark, but this figure accounts for a little more than a quarter of all households in the city.

(Galax has 2,200 households and a population of 6,837. Households can have as few as one person).

Each month, new clients are added to the list as jobs are lost, unemployment benefits expire and people are placed on short-time work.

From the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2005, the number of households receiving SNAP benefits remained in the 600s, but continued to steadily increase as the economy began to weaken. By January 2006, numbers began to peak in the 700s.

In December 2007, cases totaled 764, or 1,490 people. One year later, 833 households, or 1,617 people, received assistance at a cost to Social Services of $170,996 per month.

Comparing 2007's figure to the most recent report, this is a 160-case increase in the past two years.

Based on the most recent figure, Social Services spends $220,000 a month on SNAP.

“All this money stays in Galax because most residents shop in the city,” said Clark.

The city isn't unlike the rest of the state, she added. “Everywhere is seeing a total increase in numbers. The lobby here stays full all the time.”

The Galax Social Services staff is seeing people they've never seen before.

“There's a lot of scared people,” said Clark. “They have families and don't know how they're going to take care of them. People are frightened.”

Clark said many clients who have come upon hard times are living with family and friends and are staying at homeless shelters.

“People are asking themselves 'Do I buy my medication or pay my electric bill?'” said Clark. “People are having to make choices about what they pay. Some don't even have health insurance because they can't afford it. There's a lot of stress on families.”

Social Services oversees several other types of programs, including Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and crisis assistance, which helps households meet emergency heating needs.

In December 2009, the number of TANF cases reached 108, and for Medicaid, 1,200. Applications for crisis assistance are being accepted through March 15.

“We've had the same staff for 10 years,” said Clark. “Without a seasoned staff, I'm not sure how we'd get it done. When people come here, they need assistance now.”

Clark said with case loads going up, she is concerned about the effect the upcoming budget will have on client services.

“For fiscal year 2011, we don't know how it's going to work out,” said Clark. “There are reductions being made across the board.”

Clark said Galax, like all Social Services departments in the state, are having to take furlough days to compensate for budget cuts. Until Clark hears further information, she is unsure how furlough days will work and when they will be taken.

“We're a safety net for people,” said Clark. “If the safety net falls through, we may have needs that can't be addressed.”