While poverty rates are increasing in the Historic Triangle, numbers of those using the Virginia Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, have gone down.
“It’s hard to tell if the number of people using SNAP benefits is an indicator (of a community’s economic health),” said Rebecca Vinroot, director of social services for James City County. “I think it’s an indicator of the overall picture but it’s not the only indicator.”
In James City County, data from the Virginia Department of Social Services shows that between 2017-2018 the number of residents living in poverty rose by 1 percent — from 6 percent to 7 percent. However, the number of recipients has decreased from 6,081 in 2017 to 5,767 in 2018.
Poverty is defined by the U.S. Census as when a family’s total income is less than a family’s threshold. Threshold is determined by family size. For example, the Virginia Department of Health lists an individual who makes less than $12,140 each year or a family of four with a combined income of $25,100 as living below the poverty line.
One reason for that could be a collective effort from other food programs in the county, such as the Grove Christian Outreach Center, Vinroot said. James City County is known for its rural landscape, which also means the nearest grocery store might be farther than in other localities.
“The thing about SNAP is you have to get to a grocery store to purchase food,” Vinroot said. “That’s why it is great we have sources of additional food when transportation might become an issue.”
Vinroot said SNAP is supposed to function as purely supplemental money for food purchases, not the total amount. She said most likely a person couldn’t survive on only the additional money received from SNAP, but it can help supplement what a person already has.
For a household of four people, Vinroot said the maximum SNAP benefits they can receive is $640 a month. She said those numbers are determined by an algorithm from the federal government.
But those benefits can add up each year. For James City County, the cost of the SNAP program’s client benefit spending was $5,575,435— all of which came from the federal government, according to data from VDSS.
Vinroot said only federal money is spent on SNAP benefits that directly go toward recipients. State and local funds, however, are used for administrative costs for the program.
In Williamsburg, the amount of spending on the SNAP program decreased by $990,581 between 2017-2018. But the number of people living in poverty rose by 2 percent, from 21 percent to 23 percent in Williamsburg between 2017-2018.
“SNAP benefits and applications for SNAP usually lag behind the economy in general,” said Chris Powell, the deputy director of Human Services for Williamsburg. “So if there is a dip in the economy, it’ll be a little bit before we see an increase in SNAP cases.”
In York County, the percentage of residents living in poverty has stayed the same at five percent in 2017 and 2018. But the number of residents using SNAP benefits has decreased by 298 people.
The total benefits spending decreased by $144,046 between the two years, totaling out in 2018 at $3,915,893.
But who are using these benefits the most?
“We generally look at the other regions to see if the experience is the same,” said Kimberly Irvine, director of Social Services for York County.
And for all three localities, there appears to be a pattern.
Across the Historic Triangle, women and residents ages 0-17 use the benefits more than men or any other age group.
Vinroot said most likely, the reason for those demographics is because women make up a larger portion of the general population for each locality. In addition, having children in a household tends to drive up the cost of food, which might explain why that demographic uses the program more.
“Sometimes it takes a while for these numbers to reflect each other,” Powell said. “Because if someone is in need, it can take a while for them to get on their feet.”