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Social services: Need still high for benefits

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

The region's social services departments say the number of people and families seeking state assistance remains high even as experts report an improving economy.

The Warren County Department of Social Services has seen a 50 percent increase in benefit applications in the past seven years, according to Director Elizabeth Reavis -- with no increase in staff or technology. Reavis gave a report Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors regarding her office's activity.

"About four years ago, when the economy went down so fast, and ... there was more demand on social services ... is that easing up some because the economy seems to be improving a little, are you seeing that?" asked board Chairman Archie Fox.

The department has seen a 20 percent increase in applications for assistance filed in the past couple of months, Reavis replied.

"We cannot quite figure out where that increase is coming from and a lot of it is new people, not just recycling of people that have been on assistance before," Reavis said. "We have a spike in the fall every year. Hopefully that's all we're seeing and it'll level back out.

"We weren't expecting that," Reavis added. "We were kind of trending to either flat or going down, but now we've had a spike so I hope it's a short spike."

Reavis did not give the board data on the current number of cases worked or clients served by her department. She did not respond to messages left by phone and email Wednesday seeking that data.

Shenandoah County also faces an increased number of people applying for assistance, according to Director Carla Taylor. The county's department had 3,919 clients for SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, in 2007, Taylor said. By 2011, the number of clients in the county for that program increased to 7,536. Taylor explained that the agency expected to see a decline in the number of clients by 2010. Also, she explained comparing data from month to month can be difficult because, for instance, when free lunch programs end with the school year, the department expects to see a large increase in the number of people seeking benefits for children through the summer.

As Taylor noted, the unemployment rate increased from 3.2 percent in 2007 to 7 percent in 2011.

"This is economy-driven, really," Taylor said. "Food stamps and that sort of thing are direct evidence that times are still tight."

But Taylor advised employed individuals who received cuts in salary or hours may qualify for food stamps, yet the unemployed may not if those benefits disqualify them.

So far, Taylor said she doesn't expect to see the department's number of clients increase much from the previous year. That may help, given the fact the state did not authorize her department to hire additional workers.

"It hit a peak last year, and this year I think we're going to have fewer SNAP cases," Taylor said.

Likewise, the number of clients seeking aid through the temporary assistance for needy families, or TANF, increased from 227 in 2007 to 386 in 2011. The number has not changed much this year, Taylor said, citing agency supervisors.

Frederick County has seen the greatest increase in caseloads in the past several years, according to Director Tamara Green. In 2006, the county department had 4,185 clients receiving SNAP and 505 TANF benefits in 2006, Green said. That number of clients more than doubled in five years. In 2011, the county had 11,003 SNAP and 1,133 TANF clients. Green attributed the increase to the poor economy. She echoed what her counterparts in other localities are seeing.

As of May,

the Frederick County department reported 3,285 SNAP and 194 TANF cases open. This number does not include closed cases or pending applications, Green explained.

"And it's not just isolated -- it's people being laid off, it's a change in circumstance, folks that have never applied for assistance ever before have had to come in and request services and benefits," Green said.

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