As the economy slowly emerges from what some analysts have called its worst downturn since the Great Depression, government aid programs continue to attract new applicants.
One such initiative that has received a lot of attention recently is Families First Electronic Benefits Transfer, more commonly known as the food stamp program.
According to the Department of Human Services, in December 2009, more than 284,000 households in the state received food stamps, representing an increase of 53,941 since December 2008.
“Food stamps and Medicaid programs are really the first stop-gap measure that people fall back on to try to maintain self-sufficiency,” said Marc Schiffer, director of the Passaic County Board of Social Services.
Schiffer noted there has been a large increase in applications for food stamps and Medicaid in the past year. Conversely, the state’s welfare programs have not increased at the same rate.
Gone are the days of paper certificates exchanged for food. The food-stamp system has become more modern and discreet. The Division of Family Services in New Jersey’s Department of Human Services uses the Electronic Benefits Transfer System. Recipients receive monthly allotments on a Families First debit card, which can be used to buy most grocery items. They cannot be used for alcohol, tobacco, or non-food items.
“It does not put someone into a spotlight,” Schiffer said of the card. “A lot of times it’s invisible to other shoppers.”
Despite the inconspicuousness of the card, the decision to go on food stamps can be difficult, especially for people in the upper-middle class. White-collar jobs have been hit hard, according to Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson. Because of this, she said, pride can often get in the way of somebody signing up for the program.
“Unfortunately, there are some people who feel a stigma attached to receiving food stamps,” she said. “There are some people who won’t take them even though they are eligible.”
About 15 percent of JFS Bergen’s more than 1,900 clients receive food stamps. About 5 percent of those eligible won’t join the program, according to Faith O’Connor, care manager in the adult case management department.
One JFS client on food stamps is an elderly Holocaust survivor, O’Connor said. He suffered a stroke a number of years ago and has been unable to work. He and his wife depend on the program.
“It’s difficult, yet it has served to help them tremendously,” O’Connor said.
Most people look at food stamps as a supplement to help them meet their nutritional needs, Schiffer said, despite any stigma that may be attached to the program.
“At a point in time, unless your circumstances change, you have to make a decision of having the resources to feed your family or feed your pride,” Schiffer said. “Most people make the decision to feed their family.”
Passaic County, he pointed out, is home to the third-largest number of recipients in the state. Essex County has the highest number of recipients.
Esther East, executive director of Jewish Family Service & Riskin Children’s Center of Clifton/Passaic, estimated about 100 of JFS client families receive food stamps.
“We’ve come a long way in helping people accept that if they are needy and trying to keep their families together, then they need to access whatever government programs there are, and this is one of them,” she said.
So-called entitlement programs are more acceptable now, she said, because of the difficult economy.
“It’s normative at this point,” she said.
Adina Yacoub, assistant administrator at the Bergen County Board of Social Services, no longer sees a stigma attached to the program. Her department encourages all people who think they are eligible to apply, she said.
“We tell them it’s tax dollars at work,” she said.
Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, has noticed more willingness among her clients to seek out the food stamps program. Still, she said, there remains an uneasiness about making that first call to JFS for financial help.
“Many don’t reach out until there’s a crisis,” she said. “They might be on the verge of losing their house, unable to pay for medical insurance, filing for bankruptcy…. People tend to turn to credit cards to pay their bills, but once they max out, that creates a major crisis for them.”
In the past few months the number of calls for financial assistance has doubled, she said.
When a person applies to the food stamp program, the state runs a check on his or her financial situation. On average, according to Schiffer, an individual stays on the program for six to nine months.
“It all depends on their circumstances,” he said.
A majority of grocery stores accept the EBT card, according to Yacoub. An informal survey, however, of seven Bergen County kosher markets revealed that none of them accept food stamps, although a representative of Teaneck Kosher said the market is working on it. Kosher Konnection in Passaic accepts the EBT card.
The benefits of signing up for the program, Yacoub said, include attracting more shoppers to the store. The government guarantees payment, so the only disadvantage, she continued, is some paperwork.
“It’s out there in the community for people who need it,” Fedder said. “I would hope people take advantage of it.”