Christian Easton’s husband was laid off last fall from his job as a city youth worker, and the family has benefited since February from nearly $300 in monthly food stamps.
But as Easton, 29, purchased fresh produce last week from a local farmer at a Fresh Stop in the Shawnee neighborhood in western Louisville, she said those days will soon be over — her husband has found a new job at Boys & Girls Haven.
“ The economy is getting better,” said Easton, an AmeriCorps volunteer who lives in Shively. “My husband has found a job now. We will be getting off food stamps very soon.”
Her family’s experience is part of a growing trend as the number of participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program drops in Kentucky, Indiana and across the nation.
According to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, it’s the first decline in the state since a surge sparked by the recession.
According to the cabinet, 822,619 Kentucky residents were receiving the grocery subsidy as of June 30, a 6.3 percent dip from the peak of 878,344 people a year earlier. In the same period, the number of Louisville recipients fell 4.7 percent to 133,749 from 140,292.
Meanwhile, food stamp usage across the U.S. had dipped to 46.6 million people at the end of June, a 2.1 percent drop from the program’s peak of 47.6 million a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.
Indiana’s food stamp caseloads have also reversed course in the last year, dropping 4.7 percent to 882,773 in May compared with 926,653 a year before, according to the most recent figures from the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.
Kentucky officials say they aren’t sure what’s causing the decline, but they suspect the slowly improving economy may be a factor.
“It is difficult to pinpoint a single reason,” said Anya Weber, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. “ To the extent there are changes in the economy, we will see changes in the SNAP population.”
The federal program’s eligibility requirements have not been stiffened. To participate, for example, a household of three can make no more than $2,116 in gross monthly income or $25,392 annually, and have no more than $2,000 in assets.
In a statement, the USDA said the program is “designed to expand and contract with current economic conditions and assist those who are trying to put food on the table for their families.”
It noted that the program “requires able-bodied adults to register for work, allows a deduction for earned income so that households are financially better off if they secure employment, and provides employment and training services to help participants prepare for and get jobs.”
Although the recession ended in 2009, food stamp caseloads continued to climb, especially as unemployment rates remained around 10 percent through 2011.
But since then, the job market has slowly improved. In Louisville, for example, the unemployment rate stands at 7 percent, slightly above the pre-recession rate of 6.3 percent in 2008.
“What we are seeing here is that the economy is starting to turn the corner,” said Jason Bailey, director of the nonprofit Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, based in Berea. But at the current job growth rate, he said, Kentucky will take three or four years to return to the number of jobs available before the recession.
“It is encouraging to see some steps forward,” Bailey said. “I am hopeful we are starting to turn a corner and some of this job growth will speed up.”
Most states, 47 out of 50, show dips over the last year in food stamp caseloads, according to a May analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.
“The economic recovery is likely playing the primary role,” the report said. “SNAP caseloads have historically tracked economic conditions, rising when the economy weakened and then falling — with a several-year lag — when it recovered.”
Easton said her family is still on the road to recovery itself.
Her husband’s new job pays about $ 12 hourly, about 30 percent less than his job with the city did. She said he will continue to search for a better job while working so the family can pay down bills.
“We are seeing some improvement in the economy. It is not hard to find a job,” Easton said. “It’s just hard to find one you can sustain yourself with. … It is all about the standard of living now.”
Food stamp eligibility: To find out if you are eligible for the program in Kentucky, call (855) 306-8959 or go to chfs.ky.gov/dcbs