Mississippi: Food stamp cuts hit hard in nation’s poorest state

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TUNICA, Miss. – (Nov. 8) – There is no question the poverty level in Mississippi is the highest in the nation. And on Nov. 1, another fact became painfully evident. They also receive more SNAP or food stamp benefits than any other state.

According to the 2010 census, Mississippi’s population was 2,984,926. The Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) confirmed that as of October 2013, 671,800 people, or 22.5 percent of the state, were receiving SNAP benefits.

Wyoming has the lowest with six percent.

When the country entered the Great Recession in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allowed for extended funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. When that Act expired earlier this month, state officials in Mississippi braced for the worse. As recipients were notified of the decrease, the negative effects were almost immediate. MDHS agents saw a surge in complaints and concerns due to the impending change in benefits.

Less than a month ago, SNAP recipients at a Philadelphia, Miss., Wal-Mart caused a near riot when a computer glitch with the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards refused to expend their benefits. Dozens of carts, overflowing with groceries, were abandoned in the aisles as customers marched out angry. Fearing reprisals and the safety of their patrons and employees, management called police and temporarily closed the store.

MDHS said thus far, no such disturbances have been reported with the recent decrease in benefits.

Rickey Berry, the executive director of MDHS, said the latest figures show that more than $83.4 million in SNAP benefits are being dispensed throughout the state each month. MDHS said they won’t have the final numbers of what the cuts will amount to until the end of November. But analysts predict it will be substantial.

As an example of how a household in Mississippi will be affected, Berry said a family of four receiving the maximum allotment of benefits at $668 will now receive $632, a reduction of $36 a month. Similar cuts will take place across the board.

But those numbers are far more reaching in that federal cuts will not only affect SNAP recipients, but the state’s entire economic climate as local stores feel the pinch of the food assistance cuts.

“We live in a town where we have a large EBT card trade here and it will hurt some because that’s money they won’t have to spend,” said Randy Mills, Assistant Manager of Food Giant in Aberdeen. “I personally feel it should make them spend their money better. But it’s not going to put anybody out of business. But from a store’s point of view, the more they get, the more we get.“

Food Giant has about 26 stores in Mississippi including the Aberdeen/Monroe County location. Monroe County has 7,557 people receiving SNAP benefits totaling $890,905 per month.

Mills said he often sees a lot of those benefit dollars wasted.

“I’m in my 50s,” Mills said. “And I worked at a store when I was young, And older people back then who got assistance, they cooked. And people who get it now, they don’t cook. They buy a lot of things they don’t need and it’s just wasted. And that’s just the way it is.”

Mississippi is home to 82 counties. MDHS Spokesperson Julia Bryan confirmed that eight of those receive 40 percent or more in SNAP benefits per month. Four counties in particular top out at more than 43 percent: Tunica and Washington counties tie with 43.5 percent; Sharkey at 45.6 percent, and Humphreys – with more than half the populace – with 50.7 percent.

Tunica, which oddly enough now stands as the third largest gaming region in the United States, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City, is home to nine casinos and draws huge crowds each month with their gambling and concert attractions.

But out of a population of 11,800 (74 percent are black), 4,693 receive SNAP benefits.

“We’re in the gaming industry, but the wages are not the best,” said James Dunn, Executive Director of Tunica County Community Development. “They’re not livable wages. They pay $8, $9 and $10 an hour and most of those are service jobs. And a large percentage of the population here are employed in the gaming industry.”

Dunn said because of technology and gaming competition from surrounding states, Tunica doesn’t see as much tourism as it has in the past, resulting in a cut in employee hours.

“The industry has downsized,” he said. “So, with the price of gas and things like that, instead of people driving to Tunica, so many choose to stay close to home and patronize the casinos in their area.”

Tunica has faced staunch criticism in the past when a report on “60 Minutes” in 1985 exposed the segregation and degenerate conditions of black residents living in Sugar Ditch Alley.

While Tunica, located in the Mississippi Delta, boasted at least three dozen millionaires living in colonial-style homes at that time, the scene was much different a few miles away where black families were living in dilapidated, wooden shacks with no drinking water, no inside toilets and an infestation of roaches. Residents were forced to defecate in portable containers which they then carried outside their doors and threw in the “Sugar Ditch.” At the same time, the county was receiving millions of dollars in grant funding for county improvements in the “white” areas and the construction of a new airport.

The last tenants of Sugar Ditch Alley moved out in 1991, and Tunica is now a force to be reckoned with as they attract international industries to their county. But the majority of its black citizens still don’t have a voice in the community and rely heavily on governmental assistance.

“Thirty-three percent of our population is still below the poverty level and it’s been that way for years,” Dunn said. “That issue has not been addressed and many of them have not been able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Dunn said his organization is community-service based and assists with affordable housing and credit counseling. The area once known as Sugar Ditch Alley is now a series of housing units for the elderly and disabled, many of whom receive SNAP benefits. The other residents were moved to 202 or HUD homes where they also receive SNAP benefits.

“A lot of those individuals are employed. But once again, when you have large families and a fixed income coming into the household, you’re still below the poverty level,” said Dunn. “So, this is going to impact the community and those really dependant on those benefits to put food on the table.”

MDHS officials, however, said that counties like Tunica, Coahoma and Leflore in the Mississippi Delta overall have the highest cases of fraud.

“The highest fraud numbers and the counties which will be hit the hardest by the decrease in benefits would be in the counties with the highest number of SNAP cases and highest rate of poverty,” Bryan said. “[But] the agency is always actively pursuing those whose intent is to defraud a system in place to assist those in need with teams of investigators dedicated to looking at individuals and stores.”

Bryan said MDHS administers SNAP benefits to the elderly and those with children according to federal guidelines and they are bound by those regulations until they are changed on a national level. And they will continue to adhere to the allowable benefit levels to help those truly in need.

“SNAP is meant to be a supplement to one’s income to help ensure nutritional needs are met,“ she said. “Nationally, SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net. As the holidays approach, those who face food insecurity are urged to visit a local office and apply for the program. Despite cuts to SNAP, help is available for those needing assistance to meet their nutritional needs.”

“I don’t think the cutback will hurt the average family,” Mills of Food Giant said. “If they will be just a little bit more conscious of what they’re buying.”