Food stamp recipients rise by 36% in Oregon

SALEM — The number of Oregonians receiving food stamps has risen 36 percent over the past year and is expected to climb through 2010 as the state contends with high levels of unemployment, according to figures released Wednesday.

The figures released by the state Department of Human Services show that more than 650,000 Oregonians now rely on food stamps, or one out of six Oregon residents.

Washington County, one of the state's fastest-growing counties, has also had the highest increase in food stamp recipients since July 2008: 50 percent. Another fast-grower, Deschutes County, saw a 44 percent increase.

Numbers also are up 44 percent in Crook and Jefferson counties, and 42 percent in Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties.

Vic Todd, who oversees state public assistance programs, said the number of food stamp recipients is expected to continue to rise through next year. The reason, he said, is that the state's economic recovery is occurring at a slow pace.

"It's going to be a long process to get back to the economy we had in 2007," he said.

Food stamp need traditionally has been high in depressed rural areas, and it's now going up in urban areas as well as high joblessness or underemployment continues, Todd said.

"Pretty much all of the counties have been affected," he said.

Much of the increased demand for food stamps has been driven by Oregon's unemployment rate — it stood at 11.3 percent in October — which remains higher than the nation's 10.2 percent level.

The documents from the Oregon Employment Eepartment show about 210,000 Oregonians unemployed and about 200,000 drawing unemployment benefits. Many of those people draw food stamps as well.

Stephanie King, 19, showed up Wednesday at the state human services office in Medford to apply for food stamps. King, who works at a Medford call center, has been told by her employer that she is being laid off next week. She expects she will qualify for about $150 a month in food stamps.

"My credit cards are maxed out. I'm doing this because I have to, not because I want to," King said.

It's a scene that's been playing out around Oregon, nowhere more so than in Washington County, which includes Portland suburbs and is home to high-tech companies.

"There's been layoffs in the high-tech industry, said Kevin Aguirre, district manager for the state human services agency. "That not only affects people laid off in that industry, but also people who work in the service related-economy. There is less money to spend."

In the central Oregon counties of Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson, the high demand for food assistance has swamped relief agencies.

"Historically, people were able to turn to churches and food banks for help," said Patrick Carey, head of the Department of Human Services district office. "Now, those organizations are just so overwhelmed that it leaves little option for folks but to turn to the state for help."

Much of the demand for state assistance in the region has been driven by the housing bust in Bend, the once thriving resort town, but the rural economy in general has been struggling, Carey said.

"The truth is, there is not a lot of work to be found," he said.

King said she's still hoping to find work but will go on food assistance in the meantime.

"It was a very hard thing for me to come here," she said. "It's a pride thing. You don't want to ask for help."

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