Tara Harper would rather find a good job to support her family, but for the time being food stamps are the lifeline sustaining her two children.
“It's great they have food stamps, but it's not something I want to rely on forever,” said the 31-year-old Ashland resident. “I do want to go back to work.”
Harper said she's not surprised that 58,000 people in Jackson and Josephine counties received foods stamps in June, equating to roughly one out of five residents.
• To apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps, log onto www.oregon.gov/dhs/assistance/ or call 776-6186. For more information, go to www.oregonhelps.org/. To find local food pantries, call 800-723-3638.
• A family of four in Oregon can qualify for temporary cash assistance through TANF if it earns less than $795 a month, 43 percent of the federal poverty limit. If the family qualifies, it could receive up to $647 a month.
• The food stamp program known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits families that earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Benefits are on a sliding scale and are available through the Oregon Trail Card, used like a debit card. To find out whether you're eligible, go to https://apps.state.or.us/fsestimate/
• Students, ages 18 through 49, are eligible to apply for food stamps under certain circumstances. A student needs to be enrolled at least half-time in a higher education program and work 20 hours a week.
— Source: Oregon Department of Human Services
Tough times has meant a 27.3 percent increase in those seeking food stamps this June over the same month last year, according to figures released from the Oregon Department of Human Services.
Statewide, the number of food stamp recipients climbed to nearly 615,000, or about one in every six Oregonians.
“Right now it's really hard,” Harper said.
She got laid off as a hair stylist when she was pregnant with her 6-month-old son. Then, her life took another detour when an abusive relationship ended the wedding she planned for March 31.
“I was homeless for about three months, living with friends and occasionally at my mom and dad's,” she said.
At the moment, she's got her hands full taking care of 6-month-old Nevaeh (heaven spelled backwards) and 4-year-old Rubie.
She gets some unemployment money, but she receives $509 a month for food stamps. Because of the abusive relationship she was in, Harper said she qualified for a program that supplements her rent.
“I've been very fortunate,” she said.
Harper gets support from the Family Nurturing Center in Medford, which held a picnic in Lewis Park for about 50 parents and their children Thursday.
Program director Kim Oveson said a majority of the struggling families in her program rely on food stamps.
“I think it's crucial for them,” she said. “It's how they attempt to make ends meet.”
One woman in the nurturing center program, Kelly, who asked that her last name not be used, said she was formerly employed as a home health care worker.
“I just can't find work,” said the 39-year-old Medford woman, who has a 3-year-old daughter. “I've been sending out 10 resumes a week, and I've only recently been getting interviews, which has been hopeful.”
Many of her friends don't depend on food stamps, but Kelly said the $370 a month that she can put on her Oregon Trail Card helps her for the time being. “We wouldn't have been able to make it,” she said.
Angie Curtis, director of the county's Commission on Children and Families, said local agencies are scrambling for every dollar they can get to keep up with demand locally as people find themselves strapped for cash because they are recently without work.
A program that provides emergency food and shelter money for the needy in Jackson County got a boost when the annual allocation of $176,000 received another $85,000 from the federal stimulus package. These extra dollars go directly to the United Way of Jackson County, ACCESS Inc., the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, the Upper Rogue Community Center and Jackson County Health and Human Services.
“They give us extra money, but we have to target the newly unemployed,” Curtis said.
The state has seen a 26.5 percent increase in demand for cash assistance this June over the same month last year. There are 24,982 families in the state receiving help from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Elizabeth Mazzara, spokesman for the state's Children, Adults and Families Division, said every community has seen the effects of the economic downturn.
“It is our friends and neighbors,” she said.
Food stamp recipient Laura Kennedy said life's been difficult in recent years, and she doesn't know what she would have done without food stamps for her two children, and a third on the way.
“Now that I've got my job, it will help get me back on my feet and put food on the table,” said the 29-year-old Grants Pass woman.
Kennedy is in training to be a health services caseworker at the Grants Pass Self Sufficiency Office. She hopes to get a promotion next month that will mean she doesn't have to rely on food stamps anymore.
Currently, her gross income is $2,128 a month, but she takes home $1,700. After rent, car payments, insurance, utilities and gas, she has $112 left over.
With a 5-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, Kennedy is a single mother who relies on $100 cash benefit and $528 to pay the grocery bill each month.
“Even with a job now, we'd be struggling without food stamps,” she said.