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More Illinois families are receiving food stamps than ever before as a result of the deepest recession in decades, state officials said.
More than 780,000 Illinois families got food stamps in June, up 11.9 percent from a year earlier, the Illinois Department of Human Services reported Monday. Nationally, 40 million Americans - 18.7 million households - use food stamps.
In Illinois, the number of people applying for the program has increased even faster than those enrolled, and state and national officials expect demand to keep growing. Illinois applications were up by 27 percent in June, compared to a year ago.
Part of that was due to the recession, which is now more than two and a half years old, said Jennifer Hrycyna, associate director of Human Capital Development at the state Department of Human Services. She oversees food stamp distribution in the state.
"It's just bad and it's not getting better," Hrycyna said.
Some of the increase, though, is also likely due to the April elimination of an asset test people used to have to pass before becoming eligible.
"People didn't have to spend down their savings all the way in order to apply," Hrycyna said, adding that she isn't sure how many current recipients wouldn't have qualified under the old test.
State officials, she said, also have started trying to reach more people who need food stamps, working through food banks and other outlets to help people apply for benefits.
The food stamp program is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
A family of three can get up to $526 in monthly benefits, depending on their income and expenses. The average in Illinois is $296 a month. To qualify, a family of three can't have more than $1,984 in income.
Alana Sykes, 30, of Rantoul, learned Tuesday that her unemployment benefits put her just above that line, meaning she can't get food stamps she says she needs.
Sykes lost her job at the Lincoln's Challenge Academy school in Rantoul during state layoffs late last year. Without food stamps, she said, she and her two children aren't eating - fresh fruits and vegetables are beyond her means.
The 30-year-old National Guard veteran said she's still surprised that she needs food stamps to help feed her family.
"I never thought, being in the service, that I'd ever have to (apply)," she said.
Elizabeth Garcia, however, had no qualms about applying for food stamps to feed herself, her three children and her boyfriend. The 32-year-old from Mahomet, Ill., hadn't been able to find a job, and without the aid, her family would have to live exclusively on the $540 a month her boyfriend earns in a restaurant, she said.
"It's not embarrassing at all," Garcia said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter. "My children need to eat."
Some of the sharpest increases in food stamp use have been in the counties to the north and west of Chicago, Hrycyna said.
The state Department of Employment Security says those areas have some of the highest unemployment in the state - 14.8 percent in June in the Rockford area, for instance.
Statewide unemployment was 10.4 percent in June, essentially unchanged from the 10.5 percent reported a year earlier and more than the national rate of 9.5 percent.
The Department of Human Services expects the number of Illinois food stamp recipients to increase again when July figures are available, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture - which oversees the program and distributes the money to states - projects that 43 million Americans will be using food stamps by next year.
The growing number of people relying on food stamps is just another sign the recession is likely the deepest and most painful since downturn that followed World War II, University of Illinois economist Fred Giertz said.
"Food stamps are kind of the first source of aid because it doesn't require people to go on welfare or that sort of thing," he said.
He believes the current slow recovery will continue, and employment will increase over the next year, but only slowly.
"Bad times come to an end," Giertz said. "We've weathered the financial crisis and we're going through a very slow recovery process."