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Census: Fewer Arizona households received food stamps in 2013

A drop in the percentage of Arizona households receiving food stamps from 2012 to 2013 likely points to an improving state economy, a public policy expert said.

Chris Herbst, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs, noted that Arizona’s unemployment rate dropped during that period.

“The size of the caseload basically tracks labor market conditions,” Herbst said. “There is some research which suggests that the size of a food stamp caseload tends to increase when the unemployment rate increases and falls when the unemployment rate falls.”

A U.S. Census Bureau report released this week estimated that in 2013 13.5 percent of Arizona households – 323,000 in all – had received benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) during the previous 12 months. That placed the state right at the national average.

The 2012 figure was 14.5 percent of households – 346,000 in all – placing the state slightly above the national average of 13.6 percent.

The rate remains almost twice as high as it was in 2007 – 6.9 percent – before the Great Recession took hold.

Brian Simpson, communications director for the Association of Arizona Food Banks, attributed at least part of the decline to improvement in some measures of the state’s economy, such as the unemployment rate.

“We feel that things are slowly, emphasis on slowly, stabilizing in the economy,” Simpson said. “After years, really since the recession hit, we’re starting to see those levels plateau and decline a little bit. We’re looking at that cautiously as good news, I guess I would say.”

Jerry Brown, media relations director for St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, said that from a food bank’s perspective a decrease in food stamp recipients isn’t necessarily positive or negative but rather depends on each family’s situation.

“It could be that they no longer qualify for food stamps,” he said.

The Arizona Department of Economic Services administers SNAP benefits under the name Nutrition Assistance in Arizona. To be eligible, a household’s gross monthly income must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a household’s gross monthly income must be at or below $2,144 per month – about $25,700 a year – for a family of three to qualify for food stamps.

Benefits for a family of three cannot exceed a maximum food plan amount of $649 per month, according to the DES website. Benefits can last anywhere between six months and two years before state officials contact a household for an eligibility review.