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Unemployment decreases; food support increases

Since 2009, the number of individuals who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly called food support, has almost doubled in Douglas County. The number of health care assistance cases has also grown.

In order to keep up with the change, Director of Social Services Mike Woods plans to promote three financial workers to eligibility specialist roles and add one additional financial worker to the current pool of 19 workers. He made the request at the June 26 Douglas County Board meeting.

Assets are no longer included in eligibility criteria when applying for SNAP benefits, which increased the number of applications.

The health care program for single adults has undergone four changes, starting as General Assistance Medical Care and ending with Medical Assistance for Adults without Children.

Woods explained that a substantial amount of the increase is because the state removed the asset test portion from the eligibility application. Outreach programs have also brought in people who are eligible but would otherwise not have applied.

"So the eligibility has to have increased the number of people eligible for food stamps," Commissioner Jerry Johnson said. "And [the state] didn't send any money along with it."

The current system will allow people to keep their homes or cars so when they are able to secure employment they can more easily get back on their feet.

Johnson clarified that a person who owns a home could essentially qualify for SNAP.

"They don't have large houses; they don't have large assets," Woods said. "They're the people who were probably doing OK and lost a job or had their hours cut."

Approximately 30 percent of eligible people in Douglas County are still not being served.

ELIGIBILITY SPECIALISTS

Woods' solution to the increased workflow at Social Services will enable specialists to focus on specific areas such as adult/disabled, families and long term care. The specialists' caseloads will be smaller because of the time it takes fulfilling obligations, which is where the need for an additional financial worker is created.

"There's nothing worse than having an application sit around for three or four months," Woods said. "Not having access to services they are entitled to."

On an average day, the social services office has more than 100 contacts between walk-ins and phone calls.

Woods said although the number of SNAP recipients has increased from 743 cases in 2009 to 1,407 cases in 2012, a more accurate number of how busy the office is would be the amount of people who apply and are rejected.

"We have a countless number of programs ranging from food stamps to MinnesotaCare to Medical Assistance to Group Residential Housing. Each and every one of those program areas requires content expertise," Woods said.

All of the positions are included in the 50-percent government match. Woods said adding the specialist positions will ready the agency to be more of a regional resource.

"Prepare us for the redesign process that's going to be taking place in the next four to five years," Woods told the board. "Position us to be the county that is able to do that and not the county that is absorbed by other counties performing those functions."

Douglas County commissioners gave Woods the go-ahead to create job descriptions for the eligibility specialists.

WEST CENTRAL INITIATIVE

Commissioners approved an update to the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for West Central Initiative (WCI) at the June 26 board meeting.

Approving the annual update is a qualifier for grants and local economic development projects from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

WCI serves the region of Douglas, Clay, Becker, Wilkin, Otter Tail, Traverse, Grant, Stevens and Pope counties.

Although there has been a decrease in unemployment numbers according to data compiled by WCI - 6.9 percent in 2009, 6.6 percent in 2010 and 6 percent in 2011 - WCI economic development planner Greg Wagner said there was an increase in poverty. Between 2000 and 2010, the region grew by more than 11,000 people. Population counts for 2012 have not yet been released.

The per capita income in the west central Minnesota region was $36,452 in 2010, which is 85 percent of the state's ($42,798) and 91 percent of the nation's ($39,937).

When an economy drops below 80 percent, it is considered distressed. Factors included in gauging how distressed an economy is include the poverty rate and the number of people applying for food assistance.

Wagner said the economy is in an upturn, based on an increase in hiring for manufacturing jobs.

"We know the economy is truly recovering," Wagner said.

In Douglas County, the average weekly wage is $654; regionally it is $610. Wagner said Douglas County is quite a bit higher than the region overall.

The top three paying industries weekly wages come in at: manufacturing ($794), information ($837) and public administration ($778).

In the nine-county region WCI covers, four main industries employ 75 percent of the workforce: education and health services, trade, transportation and utilities, manufacturing and leisure and hospitality.

DeyCrystal Dey Crystal Dey is a staff reporter for the Echo Press. Originally from Minnesota's Iron Range, Dey worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Florida and Connecticut before returning to her home state to join the Echo Press in October 2011. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter at @CrystalDey_Echo.

Crystal Dey

Crystal Dey is a staff reporter for the Echo Press. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Florida and Connecticut before returning to her home state to join the Echo Press in October 2011. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.

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