As joblessness soars, call goes out for food stamp justice

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Empty store windows line downtown streets in this old mill town, the birthplace of our country’s industrial revolution.

Around one corner, a sign inside the storefront office of a social justice group, the George Wiley Center, declares: “50,000 people in Rhode Island need food stamp assistance.” A flyer posted on the center’s window announces a “Five-city march for food stamp justice.”

Enrollment in the federal Food Stamp Program (now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP) has jumped almost 20 percent in the past year.

Nationally at least 1 in 10 Americans are now receiving food stamps, the federal government announced April 2. That’s a record 32.2 million people.

But an estimated 1 in 3 people who are eligible for food stamps are not receiving them, Wiley Center staff member Liz Marsis told me.

One reason, she said, is that state food stamp caseworkers currently have caseloads exceeding 1,000 applicants each. Another barrier is the program’s whopping 28-page application booklet.

The five-city march called for the state to hire 31 additional food stamp workers to process claims, and to replace the 28-page food stamp application with a streamlined 4-page form. And it asked the state to open food stamp offices on Sundays.

Increasing access to safety net programs like food stamps will boost the state’s economy, Marsis noted. “When $1 is put into school breakfast programs or food stamp programs, people buy food, or fix the flat tire on the car,” she said. People who benefit from these programs “spend their money locally — that means customers for small businesses, and that means helping the wholesale market — it creates wealth, it helps build the middle class, it has a big effect on the local economy.”

The center’s efforts to expand food stamp access are supported by local grocery stores and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Marsis said.

One of the state’s U.S. senators, Jack Reed, emphasized at a recent press conference that every $1 the government spends on food stamps helps generate $1.73 in economic activity.

The April 4 march passed through five Rhode Island cities badly battered by the local and national economic crisis, in a state badly in need of economic recovery, and strong safety net programs.

Unemployment is at record levels here. Joblessness jumped to 10.5 in February, Rhode Islands’ 13th consecutive month of job losses.

The state’s nearly 5 percent increase in unemployment last year was the highest in the nation.

Manufacturing, retail and construction jobs are the biggest losers here. You could say Rhode Island is the rustbelt of the Northeast.

Overall, the U.S. economy lost 663,000 more jobs in March as the unemployment rate rose to 8.5 percent, its highest level since 1983, the government reported April 3.

That brings to 5.1 million the number of jobs lost since the recession officially began in December 2007, with more than 2 million disappearing in the first three months of this year.

Economists say the plunge in employment was still unfolding, with no clear turnaround in sight.

Meanwhile the state’s right-wing Republican governor has sparked widespread anger by putting forward a budget that slashes funding for state and local services and municipalities.

suewebb@pww.org