Athens Residents Look for Jobs to Keep Benefits

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As we move into 2014, hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who depend on federal food assistance, will find themselves scrambling to meet additional work requirements in order to continue receiving the same benefits.

According to Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the new requirements state that able-bodied adults between 18 and 50 can only receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they maintain 20 hours of work a week.

Athens County currently has 11,000 SNAP beneficiaries, each of whom on average receives about $126 a month.

“It’s not like people are getting enough food even to get by. We’re not giving people enough to get through the month,” said Nick Claussen, coordinator at Athens County Job and Family Services. “We are very concerned about this continued push to take public assistance away from people when they don’t have enough to begin with.”

Ohio Governor John Kaisch has requested that 16 Ohio counties with the highest unemployment rates be exempted from the changes, including neighboring Morgan and Meigs counties—Athens County, however, did not make that list.

Many people participated in a statewide waiver that exempted them from working the federally mandated hours.  Those individuals will be back on the job hunt for fear of losing their meal benefits.


What about the businesses?

Due to the increase in work hours and a potential decrease in the amount of people receiving benefits, businesses in places like Athens may have a lot more applicants for few jobs.

“We have to find work sites for these people,” said Nick Claussen. “But just having those places that will take workers, getting people to work site, getting people to command work sites is difficult.”

Claussen and his co-workers are worried that if Athens residents have trouble meeting the requirements, so will other nearby counties, which will result in a lot of people being denied assistance.

Currently many of the people sustain their food stamps by working at thrift stores and food pantries, and use community action organizations to sustain work.

Pantries pick up the slack

Throughout the year many different non-profit organizations provide free meal programs for individuals and families in Athens who are food insecure.

United Campus Ministries (UCM) is an interfaith community service organization that operates free, organic and locally grown meals on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons.

“We are driven by the perception and the reality that there are people that go hungry if there are not programs like ours available,” said Melissa Wales, director of the UCM.

UCM provides about 5,000 meals a year to community members, many of whom are on food stamps and run out of money toward the end of the month.  Wales anticipates an increased in attendance at food panties and programs if people are unable to meet the job requirements and stay on SNAP.

“I see obviously the programs like Thursday supper and Saturday lunches and other food pantries and meals having to pick up the slack, having to respond to the needs in our communities,” said Wales. “We will figure out a way to do that, we always have.”

Food insecurity in Athens

Despite the fact that Athens did not qualify for the exemption, this county remains one of the poorest in the state.

Food security encompasses the quantity and quality of the food needed to sustain a healthy and active lifestyle. A rising number of people in Athens, regardless of whether or not they use food stamps, face challenges getting access to a healthy quantity of nutrition food.

UCM makes it a mission to educate volunteers and students who work with their free meal program about what it means to be food insecure and the ways that the community can combat it.

The 2010 USDA Report defined food insecurity as:

“A condition that arises from lack of money and other resources to acquire food. Food-insecure households are classified as having either low food security or very low food security, which differ in the extent and character of the adjustments the household makes to its eating patterns and food intake.”

As of 2010, 16.8% of Ohioans are considered food insecure.