Rock County FoodShare cases up 107 percent since 2008, helping feed almost 30,000 people
Carrie clips coupons and keeps a close eye on sales in the grocery store.
She cooks hotdogs, macaroni and cheese and Tater Tots casserole weekly for supper.
When the 49-year-old can afford it, she buys hamburger and stretches it into three meals for her teenage son and herself.
“I make sure my son has enough to eat first,” said Carrie, who works two part-time jobs. “I eat peanut butter and toast, if I have to.”
The Edgerton woman is among 29,939 low-income people in Rock County, including 12,349 children, who looked to FoodShare to help put food on the table as of July 31.
The 29,939 FoodShare recipients account for 14,715 cases. Each case can be an individual or a family.
Between July 2008 and July 2013, the number of FoodShare cases in Rock County grew 111 percent, with a slight decline in July this year, said Mary Donahue, economic support supervisor at Rock County Human Services Department.
In July 1997, the oldest numbers on record, the county had 1,900 cases of FoodShare, also known as Food Stamps.
Fueling the upsurge is a struggling economy, Donahue said.
“Part of the increased numbers also can be attributed to the state doing a lot of outreach and notifying those who are eligible,” she explained.
The county administers the federal FoodShare program, which issued more than $3.43 million in debit cards in July and $3.3 million in August.
FoodShare is the largest caseload of human service department workers. The income-based program is one of a handful to help people in poverty.
“No one calls it welfare anymore,” Donahue said. “It's called public assistance. Welfare has a negative connotation.”
'MOST ARE WORKING'
FoodShare benefits vary based on income and other circumstances.
Donahue provided the following examples:
-- One person with no income and no rent or utility expense would qualify for the maximum monthly FoodShare allotment of $194.
-- Two people with income of $617, child support of $340 per month and paying rent of $400 plus heat could qualify for $300 in FoodShare per month.
-- Four people with income of $1,442 and paying $700 in rent plus heat could qualify for $41 in FoodShare per month.
For Carrie, the more than $200 she gets a month in FoodShare makes all the difference.
“If I had to take it out of my earnings, we wouldn't have clothes on our backs,” she said.
Carrie does not want to be identified in the newspaper.
“I think some people believe I don't try hard enough,” she said. “It's hard to look at people and tell them you are struggling.”
The woman works a couple days a week doing seasonal handyman repairs. In addition, she was employed at a Madison clothing store, where her hours were recently slashed. She got a different job at a consignment shop in Janesville and hopes to save gas money on a shorter commute.
“Most people on FoodShare are working,” said Donahue. “Many are working in low-paying jobs. Often, they have no benefits and no time off. If they are sick, they lose their jobs. They seem to have a lot of turnover in their employment.”
In addition to those who are working, FoodShare also helps people who have disabilities, live on fixed incomes or have lost their jobs.
The program does more than provide money for food.
It also helps people find work and provides small amounts of transportation money for job searches. Beginning Jan. 1, the employment and training part of the program will expand, Donahue said.
Under the new rules, a client must work a minimum of 80 hours a month to be eligible.
“The client will be dropped if he or she does not find work,” Donahue said. “Exceptions are made for people with disabilities and small children at home.”
In addition to FoodShare, Carrie recently was accepted for coverage under Medical Assistance. Her ex-husband's medical insurance covers her son.
As of July 31, the county had 8,584 cases of Medical Assistance, representing 16,445 people. Among them were 8,815 children.
The program provides medical insurance to low-income people.
The number of cases is down from 14,193 at the same time a year ago and from 14,374 in 2012. A case may be one person or a family.
“The reason the caseload dropped is because the governor lowered the income-eligibility limit beginning April 1,” Donahue said. “Many people are no longer eligible. They are supposed to buy private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, but many cannot afford it, so they have no insurance.”
Clients have eligibility reviewed annually for Medical Assistance and every six months for FoodShare.
“We are not trying to make it difficult for people,” Donahue said. “We are just following the rules.”
In addition to FoodShare and medical assistance, the county also had 576 cases in the Wisconsin Works Program.
Wisconsin Works, also known as W-2, replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children in fall 1997. The program is available to parents of minor children whose income is below 115 percent of the federal poverty level.
The program provides employment-preparation services and case management. To stay in the program, a person must have 40 hours a week of classes or job searching.
“W-2's focus is employment based,” Donahue said.
Since 2012, Forward Services Corp. runs the W-2 program, which became too expensive for the county to administer, Donahue said.
Brian Covey of Forward Services said his agency trains people in workforce skills.
“There's one thing I want to emphasize about W-2,” he said. “This is not an entitlement program. It is set up as a work-first program. People have to do things for that check. It is a different program than it was 20 years ago.”
W-2 has its roots in Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The entitlement program was based on family size and was one of the biggest public aid programs in the 1990s.
In 1997 under the Thompson Administration, the program transformed into Wisconsin Works.
“We are helping people re-career,” Covey said. “Most people get trained in community service jobs.”
His agency saw a spike in the number of W-2 enrollees in 2013. He attributes the increase in part to the decrease in the amount of time a person can receive unemployment benefits.
“Rock County is still adjusting to finding employment for people after the (General Motors) plant closing,” Covey said. “We've had people searching for jobs a long time. There's growth coming but not fast enough.”
His agency partners with Rock County Human Services, which helps qualifying individuals cover the cost of child care.
As of July 31, the county paid a subsidy for licensed day care to almost 700 people working or going to school.
“The benefit is designed to keep people employed,” Donahue said. “It is also income based.”
Benefit programs have gotten more difficult to administer, Donahue said.
“There are more rules,” she explained. “Our training is ongoing for caseworkers because the rules keep changing as the laws change.”
She called her staff overwhelmed. The caseload for one case worker is 750 families. The department just started a pilot program to more evenly distribute the workload, which will reduce the number to 510.
Donahue said some people take advantage of the programs.
“However, far more are working their tails off trying to make ends meet,” she said. “They are showing their children how to work for what you want. Many hate coming here for assistance.”
She does not believe public assistance discourages people from working.
“The benefits are not high enough to be a way of life,” she said. “FoodShare is meant to supplement a food budget. It is not meant to be the food budget. If a person is only relying on this benefit, it won't go far. In addition, all our programs help people find employment. You are not just sitting back and waiting for a check.”
TRYING TO STAY POSITIVE
Carrie is proud of her son, who is doing well in school.
“I don't want his life to be what we have now,” she said. “He wants to get into technology, and I'm grateful for that. I hope he never has to have assistance. He knows how hard we are struggling, but he also knows a brighter side.”
When he had a recent birthday, Carrie took him and friends on a special outing to play laser tag.
“I get tired of telling him we can't afford things,” she explained. “I saved for it.”
Even so, Carrie has a lot of sleepless nights.
“Now, I'm thinking about all I have to do to get through the winter,” Carrie said. “I just paid off my winter utility bill (from last year). I feel most comfortable now because I have a second summer job, but it is ending soon.”
If her car breaks down or she has other unexpected expenses, she will quickly be in the red again.
“Friends and family don't want to hear if you are broke,” she said. “I just do what I have to do.
"I'm tired of always being sad. I want the day to be over when I'm on public assistance. If I want my life to be different, I realize I'm the only one who can make the change. I keep trying.”