One in seven Utah households have food struggles
Fewer jobs, combined with rising food insecurity and pending changes to food-stamp policy recently motivated several low-income advocates in Utah to seek Gov. Gary Herbert's help.
A letter, hand-delivered to the governor's office Friday, asked the governor to create a task force of government, education and advocacy representatives to study how Utah can better help individuals with significant barriers to find work.
The 28 nonprofit and faith-based organizations that signed the short letter expressed the concern that the state's Department of Workforce Services (DWS) "may not be able to reach this goal on its own."
In a written response, Herbert's Deputy Chief of Staff Ally Isom said that while the governor appreciates their concern, the advocates need to be aware that DWS already provides programs and opportunities to address those needs.
"All measurable data indicate Utah is doing well reconnecting the unemployed to the workforce, as new claims for unemployment benefits continue to trend down," Isom said, adding that the best durable solution to battle hunger and unemployment is to grow jobs and help Utahns become fully employed Herbert's main focus.
According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, one in seven Utah households struggled to maintain adequate food supplies between 2009 and 2011 and nationwide, 50.1 million people experienced food insecurity last year.
Unemployment and underemployment continue to exacerbate those food struggles.
Comparing Utah's 2007 job numbers to DWS figures released last month, the state is still down 40,000 jobs since the recession's onset.
"Where are the jobs?" asked Linda Hilton, community outreach director for the nonprofit Salt Lake City-based Crossroads Urban Center, one of the organizations urging Herbert to take action.
Many of Crossroad's clients have two drawbacks when seeking work, Hilton said: 1) no high school diploma or GED and 2) a lack of basic computer skills.
In response to the recession, Utah waived food-stamp time limits in April 2009. However, beginning Oct. 1, DWS will reinstate the three-month cap within a 36-month period that an able-bodied adult without dependents can receive that assistance.
"This has been a federal policy for a long time," DWS spokesman Curt Stewart said of the pending reinstatement, adding that the agency's core mission is to help people upgrade their skills and find jobs.
These "able-bodied" individuals fall between the ages of 18 and 49 and can extend the time they receive food stamps by working at least 80 hours a month by participating in employment-learning activities or volunteering at least 24 hours a month at an eligible work site, such as a food pantry or soup kitchen.
But Hilton worries that thousands of people are set to drop off the food-stamp rolls during the next six months, that food bank supplies are already stretched thin by a surge of hungry households, and that the jobless are not being adequately prepared to enter the workforce.
Rachel Fischbein, emergency services director for Crossroads Urban Center, said that food insecurity is of great concern in light of the upcoming policy change.
"Most of our singles and homeless guys are on food stamps right now," Fischbein said, "and that's all going to change."
In addition, the food pantry that Fischbein oversees at 347 S. 400 East is receiving fewer items from the state's steadiest provider.
"Our private donations are still good, but we have about 14,000 pounds less from the Utah Food Bank than the same time last year," Fischbein said.
Bill Tibbitts, associate director for Crossroads Urban Center, is convinced that most people would rather work than be on food stamps.
"If you're going to kick people off food stamps for not finding work, you better be sure our job programs are working," Tibbitts said. "Anyone who is unemployed and relying on food stamps . . . knows better than anyone the importance of finding a job."
Hunger, jobs and food stamps
Percentage of Utah households that lacked adequate food between 2009 to 2011
Fewer Utah jobs now compared to 2007
When Utah's food stamp policy reverts to three-month pre-recession limits
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture and Utah Department of Workforce Services
See more about comments here.