Hard times, hard choices: The decision to go on food stamps

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2009 - 3:21 PM

Middle class to safety net: Recession swells the number of Minnesota food stamp recipients.

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Ini Augustine is on the verge of losing her Lino Lakes home to foreclosure and is hoping to modify her payment so she can stay in the house.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Three years ago, the National Republican Congressional Committee gave Ini Augustine a Congressional Medal of Distinction, recognizing her prospering temporary-employment business.

Today, Augustine is among tens of thousands of Minnesotans forced on to food stamps for the first time by a recession that first imploded the stock market and now has exploded stereotypes of welfare recipients.

"I've been working since I was 13," Augustine, 28, said. "I never had trouble finding a job."

Until now.

As full-time jobs disappeared in a faltering economy, so did the demand for temporary staff. By December 2007, Augustine realized she could not sustain her ProVision Staffing Group that once grossed nearly $400,000 a year.

These days, she works 70 hours a week trying to sell insurance and do various human-resource chores on commission. She can't find a salaried job that makes ends meet. She's trying to modify her mortgage to save her four-bedroom home in Lino Lakes from foreclosure. She battles to keep the heat on and the lights burning. In October, the divorced mom finally broke down and applied for food stamps for herself and her young daughter.

"Before, I thought people on food stamps just didn't feel like working," said Augustine."Now, it's exactly the opposite. There are people who want to work. But there are no jobs."

The Minnesota Department of Human Services paints the changing landscape with numbers:

• The state added 89,930 food stamp recipients between June 2007 and June 2009, and the numbers have continued to rise sharply, officials said.

• Hennepin and Ramsey counties saw their food stamp rolls grow by nearly 30,000 participants from June 2007 to June 2009.

• Carver County's food stamp participation increased by 85 percent in the same two-year span, while Scott County saw a 70 percent rise, and numbers were up 49 percent in Dakota County and 40 percent in Washington County.

"The recession is hitting families not used to using government programs," said Chuck Johnson, the state's assistant human services commissioner for children and family services.

What's happened, Hennepin County spokeswoman LuAnn Schmaus explained, is that the "solidly middle class have fallen into the safety net."

Fruitless search

Darlene Maroney, 59, went on food stamps -- technically called "food support" -- to ease the load on her sister, who opened her Minneapolis home when Maroney lost her job.

"I had to help my sister out some way," she said. "I certainly hope to get off food stamps. I keep looking for jobs. I keep applying, but I don't hear back."

Like so many of those now seeking government aid, Maroney worked for decades and never expected to need any form of welfare.

In May 2008, she lost her job scheduling repair orders. Since then, she has applied for hundreds of jobs. A few weeks ago she got an all-too-rare callback. She went through eight interviews in an attempt to get a production job. She made it to the final five but lost out.

Coming close doesn't count when you have a family. After putting it off for three months, Denise Jourdain, 45, came to a Catholic Charities food shelf in Minneapolis on Friday morning to apply for food stamps.

"The fear of not having enough food" drove her there, she explained. "What if I don't have a job at the end of the month? I have to do this."

Jourdain and her husband, who works part time and goes to school, are responsible for seven children, grandchildren and adoptees. Jourdain spent the past 14 years working for a private nonprofit agency helping people sign up for the very services she now requires because the agency laid her off.

"I know what they put you through," she said.

Roughly half the people trying to get food support in the current push are not eligible because they have too many assets, according to Johnson of the state's human services department.

"A lot of people, when they break down and come in, are frustrated when they can't get [food support]," he said.

The number of new food-stamp applicants is "staggering," said Bill Brumfield, Hennepin County's area director of human services and public health. The food-stamp program was "not designed for this kind of event -- a middle class loss of jobs. A lot of these people have assets [that exclude them from receiving support], but you can't turn that asset into cash and food."

Middle-class 'pride buster'

Kari Thomas, 43, of St. Paul, is upset because she had a food stamp card briefly, but will no longer be able to use it because her unemployment compensation has kicked in. Although Thomas called applying for food stamps "a pride buster," the former secretary is piqued that $299 a week in unemployment will apparently cost her and her 8-year-old daughter eligibility for food stamps and medical assistance.

The state has received a waiver from the federal government to extend food stamp benefits to single adults who have no children. At one time, those benefits were restricted to three months in any three-year period, said Monty Martin, Ramsey County's social services director. But with unemployment so high, the presumption that the able-bodied can always find a job has disappeared.

Still, the bulk of the recent increase in food stamp recipients does not come from any regulatory change. It comes from an economic crisis many of Minnesota's middle-class families are experiencing for the first time, Johnson said. Although he believes the stigma attached to receiving food stamps has not disappeared, Johnson likens the current situation to "six degrees of separation."

"Everybody knows somebody who's had to do this."

Ini Augustine did it for her daughter.

"I used to say I couldn't afford to apply for welfare," Augustine said. "I'm already black, already a single mom. I might as well start smoking crack and round out all the stereotypes. The thing I realized is that if you are respectable, you will starve yourself before asking the government for help. But you won't starve your child."

Jim Spencer • 612-673-4029

  • In three years, the economic meltdown sent Ini Augustine from a congressional honor for running a $400,000-a-year business to food stamps.

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