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Face of food stamps changing in Texas
January 11, 2010

For years, Lori Downs lived by the values her father taught her — self-reliance, independence. A 29-year-old Clear Lake mother of two small children, Downs had worked full-time since she was 18 years old. She was the main breadwinner in her household and took pride in her work ethic, earning two promotions in six months at her most recent job.

Written by PEGGY O'HARE, The Houston Chronicle


For years, Lori Downs lived by the values her father taught her — self-reliance, independence. A 29-year-old Clear Lake mother of two small children, Downs had worked full-time since she was 18 years old. She was the main breadwinner in her household and took pride in her work ethic, earning two promotions in six months at her most recent job.

But on Tuesday, the former accounting clerk sat in a long line at the Texas Department of Health and Human Services office on Fuqua, tears welling in her eyes as she waited to talk to someone about how to get food stamps for the first time in her life.

The tears were not for herself, she said, but for her 3-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son.

Amid the din from the crowd filling the office lobby to capacity, the single mother described being reduced to seeking handouts after being laid off last spring from an oil field equipment job where she had been earning nearly $36,000 a year.

“I just live in a state of despair,” said Downs, a 1999 Clear Lake High School graduate attending community college on student loans and maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average despite her hardships. “Right now, my babies are living on ramen (noodles) and milk … I'm having to go into debt just to stay alive right now.

“I've never in my life had trouble getting a job,” she said. “I've been laid off two or three times before, but I've always been hired somewhere else in a week or two. I have incredible references.

“It's horrible. It makes me feel incompetent. When I began last year, I supported an entire family. This year I'm here,” Downs said, looking around the government agency's lobby. “It's very frustrating.”

Whether because of layoffs, business failures, illnesses or injuries, the number of people receiving food stamps — known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — has grown steadily over the past 18 months in Harris County and across Texas.

Recipients up 40 percent

The number receiving food stamps in Harris County stood at 470,360 by the end of the 2009 fiscal year, a 40 percent increase from 2005.

“Starting in January (2009), it became very clear that the same things we had been reading about happening in other states across the nation for at least a year had come to Texas,” said Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“That's also when we began hearing from our offices that we were seeing a different kind of person apply — people who hadn't been in our office before, who were very unfamiliar with the process,” she said.

The surge eventually created a backlog of applications, causing substantial delays for people needing emergency help — a trap that snared Downs.

Months with no word

Downs first applied in August for food stamps, as well as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid to provide health insurance for her children. After meeting with a caseworker in November, she heard nothing for months.

She waited in the agency's lobby for six hours last Monday and more than five hours Tuesday, hoping to get answers, but had to leave both days to get her children before she ever spoke with a clerk because the long lines moved so slowly. After the Houston Chronicle inquired about her case, Downs learned Thursday she would receive food stamps benefits immediately, totaling nearly $900 and retroactive to August, when she first applied.

Longest waits in Houston

Federal guidelines require food stamps applications to be processed within 30 days, but Goodman said Texas is only achieving that in about 60 percent of its cases right now. The longest waits have been seen in Houston, she said.

To reduce the backlog of applications, the agency has hired nearly 700 new employees since September, many who are still in training, but that is a long-term fix, Goodman said. The agency also pulled 100 experienced employees into a special unit to work on cases bogged down in the delay.

“Houston is absolutely — by far — the area of the state where we are having the most problems,” Goodman said. “It's just really hard for a system of this size to adjust quickly to changes in the economy or anything else that creates a sudden surge in applications.”

Downs was among those let go when her office's workforce was cut in half.

Her unemployment benefits ran out in October. Downs said she has applied for numerous jobs since being laid off in April, but received only two calls from prospective employers so far and neither panned out.

The job loss came one week after Downs left her husband. He is unable to pay much child support because he earns only minimum wage, but brings milk and diapers for their young daughter and son when he can, Downs said.

She lives in a Clear Lake home she had rented from her mother when she had money, but now it may have to be sold.

Her mother's income is unpredictable since she does contract work, launching Internet sites for car dealerships at a time when the auto industry has been hit hard by the recession. If the house goes up for sale, Downs and her children will likely move in with her grandmother.

Downs' car, a 1999 Toyota Camry, is also broken and on the verge of being repossessed. She said she will also likely have to give away her two dogs since she can't afford to keep them.

Her mother, Rhonda Downs, 46, of Galveston, said her daughter doesn't like asking for help.

“I told her, ‘Honey, there's no shame in needing help.' We are maxed out — we have done everything we can to hold on,” Rhonda Downs said. “I do the best I can to help her, but I have my own struggles.”

Until she finds a job, Lori Downs said she will focus on her studies and keeping a brave face for her children.

“You can't let them know how bad things are,” she said. “They are what make it so difficult and so bearable all at the same time.”

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