BILLINGS – A record number of Montana households are relying on food stamps.
More than 1 in 11 Montanans now use food stamps to help cover their grocery bills. At the start of April, they received a record $10.6 million in food stamp benefits.
It was the first time food stamp benefits in the state topped $10 million in a month.
“It’s kind of an alarming statistic, because it shows how many households in need there are,” said Linda Snedigar, the state’s public assistance bureau chief in Helena.
The federal stimulus bill was one reason for the increase. In April, federal food stamp benefits shot up 13.6 percent, with the maximum monthly benefit for a family of four rising from $588 to $668.
Meanwhile, new rules have loosened eligibility requirements. Those rules took effect in March.
In Montana, families with incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level now qualify for food stamps if certain deductible expenses — such as utility bills, child care and medical expenses — reduce the family’s net income to 100 percent of the federal poverty level.
The federal poverty level is $22,050 a year for a family of four.
In December, nationwide participation in the food program reached an all-time high of 31.8 million Americans, up 700,000 from the previous month.
Snedigar said she began to see the effects of the economic downturn ripple across Montana last fall.
“It started in the northwest corner of the state and has kind of moved down,” she said.
Normally the state’s food stamp caseload drops in the summer months as Montanans find seasonal jobs. Last year, the number of households receiving food stamps crept upward in August, then rose dramatically in September and October.
Although recipients and caseworkers continue to refer to food stamps, the name of the program changed last fall to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. For years, recipients have swiped EBT cards at checkout counters instead of using paper coupons to buy food.
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