Food stamp demand reaches a record high

The current economic downturn has caused a rise in applications for state assistance. According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, one out of every seven Oregonians now receives food stamps to supplement their food budget.

The DHS reported that the need for food stamps and cash assistance has increased by more than 25 percent over the past year and that forecasts predict an additional 24-30 percent increase in Oregonians needing food stamps and temporary assistance.

"We have now started on the second year of record-breaking demand," stated DHS Interim Director, Erinn Kelley-Siel in a recent press release. "Oregon's unemployment remains at high levels, and that means families continue to need support to feed their families and keep them safe. We don't see demand decreasing anytime soon."

South Valley Community Human Services at 1658 Ashland Street is the local DHS service center, serving Ashland, Talent and Pheonix. Department of Health Services Program Analyst Sheila Canal said the increased demand in the Ashland office reflects the statewide trend in assistance applications, and the increased applications are only the tip of the iceberg.

"Generally speaking, as the economy worsens, we get busier," Canal said. "The irony is that as these numbers go up and our services are needed more, the less money the state has. As the tax base gets smaller, the services get smaller."

The economic situation has forced many non-traditional applicants for state assistance to file as more of the middle-class need to fall back on the safety net of state services. It is a situation Canal has rarely seen.

"Most of the time, we used to see people whose unemployment is at the minimum, around $113 dollars a week," Canal said. "Now we're seeing people with $200-$250 a week unemployment checks. This is reflective of people getting laid off of very good jobs."

Another unusual situation for the Ashland office is the amount of people who have Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) benefits. Canal said the office has very rarely seen this before, and it is indicative of higher paying jobs. She explained COBRA as "a program that enables a laid-off person who has had private insurance to keep it if they can meet the payments for up to 18 months."

"If you're just working at McDonald's, you're not going to have COBRA," Canal said.

Although the demand for state services is at an all time high, the future is ominous within the Oregon DHS. The Ashland office may be facing layoffs of its own in the near future,

"As we move into the new biennium on July 1, we're expecting layoffs and furlough days, which means we will have less people to serve more people in need," Canal said.

"We are concerned about the quality of our services with less people to meet that need."

As pressure increases at the Ashland office, the staff is maintaining well, despite the demands. Canal stated that the Ashland office is a highly functional office, and teamwork allows them to get done what needs to get done.

"We don't create unnecessary stress in this office, we like each other here," Canal said. "We put a lot of energy into making a team that works together with the larger picture in mind. If we were a private enterprise, we would be rejoicing right now."

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