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Demand for food and cash assistance in New York at highest levels in years

Emilie Munson 
The Times Union

ALBANY — Demand for food and cash assistance for low-income residents in New York has spiked recently to levels not seen in years, state data shows.

Experts said the rising need is likely fueled by inflation, effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy and workforce, and the winding down of many pandemic-assistance programs that helped keep some people fed and housed over the past two years.

“The number of people coming in to apply for benefits (this fall) is astronomical,” said Albany County Department of Social Services Commissioner Michele McClave. “Not all are eligible, but they feel a need.”

Some 536,019 New Yorkers received temporary cash assistance in September, a level higher than any month since March 2018, according to the latest data from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

Likewise, the number of people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps, was greater in the spring and summer than it was at any other time over the past several years, data from the office shows. In September, 2.85 million New Yorkers got SNAP benefits; that was a slight drop from the 2.87 million who received SNAP in March through August but still higher than any other month dating back to September 2017.

Demand for cash assistance is up significantly compared to last year, whereas the clamor for food assistance has seen a slower rise during the pandemic.

While data for October and November are not yet available, McClave and other officials working on the front lines said they’ve seen high demand continue. Local food pantries are also observing a substantial surge in hunger cases.

In New York City, where the unemployment rate is higher than the rest of the state, the number of benefit recipients increased to levels not seen in nearly a decade.

In September, temporary cash aid was paid to more recipients in New York City than at any point since 2004, data shows. The number of people receiving SNAP benefits fell slightly in September relative to previous months; in August, the count of recipients was higher than at any point since December 2014.  

Outside New York City, the number of SNAP recipients was higher from March to June than at any time since August 2017, but dipped slightly from July to September. The number of cash assistance recipients was lower this year than earlier in the pandemic and before it struck, although there was a slight uptick in demand in recent months.

SNAP benefits are used to purchase groceries. Cash assistance helps low-income families with children and certain eligible individuals cover their expenses. Recipients must meet strict criteria to receive the benefits and may be required to have a job. The government programs provide benefits through a combination of state and federal money.

Experts noted key relief programs launched during the pandemic have ended. For example, New Yorkers are no longer receiving stimulus checks or a more generous version of the child tax credit introduced during the pandemic. The state’s eviction moratorium ended in January and rental assistance programs are drying up.

Many people sought public benefits for the first time during the pandemic after job losses or COVID-19 shutdowns, said Abby Biberman, associate director of the public benefits unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group. With evictions resuming this year, residents could no longer risk falling behind on rent and may have needed more cash than they did earlier in the pandemic, driving up demand for assistance programs.

“Anecdotally, our clients are experiencing a lot of problems with their benefits lately,” Biberman said. “We’ve seen a lot of delays.”

In New York City, government officials failed to promptly process 40 percent of SNAP applications from July 2021 to June, according to reporting by the news organization City Limits. The administration has struggled with a workforce shortage, like many other industries.

In a survey of Capital Region food pantries this fall, 83 percent said they were feeding more people this year than last and nearly half raised concerns about having adequate funding or being able to source products, said Natasha Pernicki, executive director of the Food Pantries for the Capital District, a coalition of 70 food pantries in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties.

More people are seeking food from pantries and they’re coming to the pantries more often, according to the coalition.

In 2021, many New Yorkers were still benefiting from federal coronavirus programs that offered expanded SNAP benefits, free school breakfasts and lunches, a child tax credit and stimulus checks, Pernicki said. But now those benefits have mostly ended at a time when historic inflation rates are crimping family budgets.

“Inflation in prices are affecting families and they’re also affecting pantries who are offering food,” Pernicki said, noting food and gas prices are up at a time when pantries have more demand. Her organization is advocating for more state aid to help food pantries keep up.

Originally published on The Times Union on November 30, 2022 

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