Food stamp need spreads to middle class

Food stamp need spreads to middle class »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. – More people than ever before now turn to state assistance for food, and the state’s food stamp program now serves more than 650,000 Oregonians.

The state does not expect the number of food stamp recipients to drop anytime soon. The Department of Human Services expects even more people to need assistance by this time next year.

The people in need no longer are just the homeless and chronically underemployed.

The Oregon Trail Card, used like an ATM card to buy groceries, is now in the pockets and purses of one-time middle class Oregonians like Mike Silva and Debbie McCollum.

They’re people who never dreamed they would need public help.

But then the economy tanked.

“It’s real embarrassing when you have to go in there when you have been financially independent,” said McCollum. “I have worked all my life. I used to make over $30 an hour, and now I am poor.”

“It would make things a lot harder for me if I didn’t have it,” said Silva, a 29-year-old waiter. “I can definitely see for other people that it would really be something major for them. It would really set them back or really hurt them if they didn’t have something like this.”

Silva applied for benefits because he said his tips have been cut in half. And he doesn’t see an end in sight as fewer people eat out.

“When they used to come in twice a week, three times a week; [now] maybe once a week or once a month even, because of the change in their income.”

Another example, found in a bankruptcy filing, is a man living in a $750,000 Southwest Portland home. He also owns two BMWs but is now unemployed and receives nearly $400 a month in food stamps after he lost his job.

At the beginning of the year a record number of 520,000 people were reported to be on the program. Now, an increase of 130,000 recipients puts that number at 650,000 near year’s end.

Dennis Sullivan keeps track of the food stamp system in Southeast Portland. He said there were more than 1,100 new Oregon Trail card recipients this month alone at his office.

With the increase of food stamp recipients, questions arise whether the number of fraud cases has also risen.

Sullivan said that it was unlikely.

“I believe it’s a product of the economy,” he said. “We haven’t seen any real dramatic increase in fraud or misuse of the program.”

In 2008, the state investigated more than 3,600 fraud complaints and found 1,500 cases of abuse.

This year, nearly 3,900 complaints were investigated but fewer than 1,300 were found to be fraud.