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Welfare rolls shrink while food lines get longer

April 20, 1998
By: Joe Stange
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Although she's worked for the Salvation Army for only two years, Cynthia Smith said she's seen the demand for charity food continue to grow.

Smith, 24, is a Salvation Army caseworker whose job it is to get food out to Columbia's poor and hungry, and she talks one-on-one with them whenever possible. Meanwhile, she's watched the food lines get longer even though the number of welfare recipients has dropped.

It's not just her imagination: The Missouri Association for Social Welfare recently reported that more than three-fourths of emergency food providers have seen an increase in food requests over the past year.

If food lines are indeed getting longer, that could be news to the governor's office. Gov. Mel Carnahan released a statement in April that proclaimed more than 100,000 Missourians have been moved off welfare since 1993.

Chris Sifford, Carnahan's spokesman, said if the demand for charity food is higher, he can only assume it's due to a large number of "working poor."

"That's still a significant problem in this state," he said. "But I think that we are making progress. The things that we can objectively verify we are very proud of, and that's that we've moved 100,000 people off welfare."

When the number of welfare recipients drops 100,000 in five years, and when unemployment stays below five percent, you might expect the demand for charity food to decrease. But Smith hasn't seen that happening, and the grumbling of the hungry hints at why.

"They're kind of adjusting to the things that are happening with food stamps," Smith said. "The amount they get has been lowered, and in some cases it's been lowered significantly."

Janice Williams, an information specialist with Missouri Family Services, said it's not actually the food stamps going down but the number of people who are eligible. After the 1996 federal welfare reform, able-bodied people aged 18-50 are only allowed three months worth of food stamps between jobs. That could explain why more poor people are looking for handouts.

Smith said the people complaining about lack of food stamps are in fact in the 18-50, able-bodied demographic. And she agreed with Sifford's assessment of the working poor, saying about half of those looking for food could be considered in that category.

"But most of the working poor are busy and don't have time to come down here," she said, adding that the majority of the workers looking for food have only part-time jobs.

And while she perceives a lack of full-time jobs as part of the problem, she said a larger piece of the puzzle involves the mentality of the part-time workers, many of whom get paid on a daily basis.

Smith wouldn't attribute the day-to-day state of mind to anything other than a "lack of knowledge."

"They don't know they should be working full time. They really have tunnel vision: 'I need to look at what I need now.'"

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