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Food Stamps in Virginia: A Look at the Numbers

U.S. Department of Agriculture

When the recession hit, a record number of people in Virginia turned to food stamps. That number has gone down a bit, but even today about one in ten Virginians participate in the federally funded program. Michael Pope has this look at why the numbers have increased so rapidly and what it means for the future.  

Standing outside an Aldi grocery store in Fairfax County on a rainy afternoon, Carol Murphy would like to go in and buy a cart full of groceries. But she doesn’t have any money.

“I can’t even pay attention I’m so broke.”

Murphy has been on food stamps since she was diagnosed with cancer back in 1990. The next year, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disability that has kept her out of work. She gets $24 a month worth of food stamp benefits.

“That $24 might buy me some eggs, some bread, maybe a pack of lunch meat, something like that. But after that it’s over. After that I’m at my wit’s end. And I don’t like that. I don’t like it. It’s not cool to be hungry in Fairfax County.”

In the last 15 years, the number of people in Virginia who receive food stamps has more than doubled. It peaked after the recession in 2013, and it’s dropped about 15 percent since then. But it’s still much higher than it was when the recession hit. Amy Best at George Mason University says part of the reason so many more people are receiving benefits is that social service agencies are doing a better job at reaching out to people.

“The folks who are eligible for SNAP benefits don’t always use SNAP benefits, and the same is the case for students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. And so we have improved our ability to capture those people.”

That improvement is partially tech-based. Virginia is one of 42 states that now allows people to apply online. But, Victor Chen at Virginia Commonwealth University says that’s only part of the story.

“As incomes stagnate for many households, they are increasingly relying on our social safety net, and food stamps are part of that.”

He points out that many of those issues will be front and center next year, when lawmakers in Washington take up reauthorization of the Farm Bill — that’s the massive piece of legislation that includes how the food stamp program works. Republicans will be considering strengthening work requirements and time limits implemented in the Clinton era. But Professor Chen says it’s crucial for those lawmakers to understand the vast majority of people who receive food stamps are children or elderly or disabled — not able-bodied people who don’t have jobs.

“That’s a minority. But still it’s a source of anger for some lawmakers who feel that these folks are getting a free lunch.”

Back at the Aldi, Carol Murphy is one of those people who believe some people who receive food stamps are getting a free lunch.

“There are just not enough benefits to go to people who really deserve them versus people who are out here ripping and running and doing whatever. They’re not working. They’re not contributing back to the county. They’re not giving anything back to the county. It would be nice if some of them were mandated to do some charity work somewhere.”

Any new requirements that food stamp recipients have a job or limit their time on the program would not apply to Murphy because of her disability. But, she says, if Congress makes those changes, she feels she might be able to get more than $24 a month.