By Hailey Persinger
Killeen Daily Herald
Though nation- and statewide food stamp program enrollment figures reflect a growing economic strain in U.S. homes, Central Texas' numbers indicate an economy somewhat insulated from economic extremes.
Food stamps – renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or SNAP, program by the federal government last fall – are now used to help fill the pantries of one in every eight Americans and one in four children. Nearly 3 million Texas residents swipe "Lonestar Cards," the program's debit-card equivalent, at grocers' cash registers.
Despite the 11 percent statewide increase in the past year, Stephanie Goodman, spokesperson for state's Department of Health and Human Services, said Bell County has displayed exceptional stability.
In stark contrast to the state's 11 percent jump, Bell County has experienced only a 4 percent increase in caseloads. With 32,892 now enrolled, the program shells out an average of $314 each month to Bell County residents who cannot afford to feed themselves or their families.
"A family of four earning up to $3,000 a month may qualify for SNAP food assistance," Goodman said. "The income limit varies depending on the family size and situation. We'll look at the family's earnings and their assets."
Though the recession wreaked havoc on states like Detroit and California, those areas were already in somewhat of an economic slump, making them more vulnerable and upping national SNAP enrollment figures. Even in Texas, cities like Dallas and Houston that had previously withstood the downturn to some degree, are now seeing a steady flow of food assistance applications.
"It really varies from area to area," Goodman said. "(Bell County) may just have a more stable job market. … I would think it would just make your local economy a little more stable than some other areas in the state."
John Crutchfield, president of the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, said the contrast of Central Texas' SNAP enrollment with the rest of the nation's isn't all that surprising given several stabilizing factors.
As a neighbor to the world's largest military base and close proximity to Austin, Bell County residents have an economic advantage, he said.
"I think location is a big factor for us," Crutchfield said. "Plus we've demonstrated the ability to grow remarkably in the last few years so people are very interested in that. People tend to flow here and the resources come with them."
Those resources – manpower, money and jobs – contribute to the community as a whole, he said. Bell County's population, though transient, has a consistent coming and going of new businesses, particularly during the holidays.
As a result of the sudden availability of holiday work, the county could see even less food assistance applications within the coming months despite its already relatively low enrollment.
"During the holidays there generally is more seasonal employment so that's a time when typically we don't see as many families applying," Goodman said. "It'll be interesting to see if that holds true this year."
Come January, however, the extra holiday work could disappear and Bell County SNAP enrollment will depend on the county's ability to continue growing and providing economic stability to business owners and making the most of the opportunities for further financial successes, Crutchfield said.
"All of those factors have kind of insulated us to some extent against many of the things that other regions are suffering from," he said.
Contact Hailey Persinger at email@example.com or (254) 501-7568.