The Connecticut Hunger Gap: When Income's Too High for Help
A new study finds that more than half of the state’s “food insecure” residents make too little to adequately feed their families, but too much to qualify for food stamps.
By Emily Feldman ••
Before Todd Tourangeau, a construction worker from Branford, was laid off in December his family was doing okay. His partner of 18 years, Annette Soules, points out that they were never rich, but that his union job and her full-time work as a medical receptionist covered the bills and fed their family of five.
When Tourangeau wound up out of work, however, things got considerably trickier. Though he managed to secure unemployment benefits to supplement Soules's $15-an-hour pay, the money was no longer enough to cover all the family’s expenses.
They hoped benefits from the government’s food stamp program would hold them over until Tourangeau's union called with more work. But the family was rejected—their income was just a hair above the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s eligibility threshold, leaving them dependent on food banks to fill the gaps in their budget.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Soules, still baffled by the realization that her family may have been in a better place right now if she were still earning minimum wage and hadn’t sought a better paying job. “What’s wrong with this picture here?” she asks with a laugh, her spirits still high despite her difficult year.
Tens of thousands of other Connecticut residents find themselves in a similar place—stuck in an income bracket that’s too high for them to tap SNAP benefits but too low for them to pay their bills and afford an adequate amount of food.
According to a new study by Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity, 57 percent of Connecticut residents who struggle to afford food, make too much money to qualify for food stamps. Many of the nearly 300,000 people in the state's limbo bracket are suffering lingering effects from the economic downturn, which drove up unemployment across the country.
“When you look back at when the recession started in 2008, it’s just been a steady increase in the amount of food we distribute,” said Mary Ingarra, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Food Bank. “Though they say the economy is improving, it’s taking people a long time to get back on their feet.”
Indeed, Feeding America found that the rate of "food insecurity" in Connecticut jumped to 14.5 percent in 2011 from 12.3 percent in 2009 at the height of the recession. That 14.5 percent represents more than half a million people, including more than 140,000 children in the state, who are not able to regularly access food. The uptick in hungry families spans the state, touching every county and congressional district.
“It’s everywhere. In areas where the median income is six figures, you see families coming with bags to get food," Ingarra said. "They’ve lost their jobs and are about to lose their homes.”
Charity groups fear that the situation might get even worse. Congress is currently mulling legislation that would cut billions of dollars from SNAP, a move that would push even more struggling Americans into the sort of food limbo the Tourangeau-Soules family is in.
About 47 million Americans currently qualify for SNAP benefits to help cover the cost of their groceries. On average, individuals receive $132 in assistance a month, which can only be used for food. In Connecticut, a person taking home less than $931 a month, after taxes, may qualify for the extra help. Those who do credit the funds with keeping them afloat through hard times.
Anna Papp, a 56-year-old from New Britain, began receiving about $200 a month for her and her husband after she lost her job as a bus driver last year. Her husband was working part-time at a dog kennel, but Papp says the two of them were still struggling.
"I had shut-off notices for my electricity and if I paid my rent then I couldn't pay my utilities," she said. "If I paid both I had no money for food at all. It was either take care of one thing or the other. There just wasn't enough for everything."
Once the benefits arrived, her fears of eviction and outages temporarily abated. After a few months, she even managed to find a new job. But bad news swiftly followed the good. Her new income tipped the couple's earnings about $40 over the monthly SNAP eligibility limit and her benefits were cut.
Now Papp, a diet-controlled diabetic, makes a weekly pilgrimige to a local food bank. She's eagerly awaiting the start of the school year, when she expects to have more driving work. In the meantime, she's submitted an application to work at a local grocery store where she hopes to find additional work through the summer.
"It's harder now," she said. "But we're trying to make do with what we have."