For the first time since the beginning of the recession, local enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as food stamps — dropped year over year in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Between 2012 and 2013, Garfield County saw a 1 percent reduction in the number of recipients while Pitkin County remained roughly even. The average Colorado county experienced a 7 percent increase.
That’s a stark contrast to the height of the economic downturn. Between 2008 and 2009, Garfield County saw an 82 percent increase in recipients and Pitkin County jumped 127 percent, both well above the state average of 32 percent for the same year.
Since 2007, Pitkin County’s program has spiked by 579 percent — more than any other county in the state. Garfield County, which historically has a much larger program, comes in fourth behind Eagle and Routt counties on the same metric, at 290 percent.
These numbers, released by Rocky Mountain PBS, paint a picture of the recession in the Roaring Fork Valley relative to the rest of Colorado. While the local economy seems to have fallen the farthest at the outset, it also seems to be recovering faster, at least with respect to the demand for public food assistance.
“A large portion of Garfield County’s population consists of young families who were disproportionately affected by the recession,” said Mary Baydarian, director of Human Services for Garfield County. “As employment opportunities decreased, primarily in oil and gas and construction, the need for assistance rose,” she said.
Baydarian also emphasized that one year of decreased enrollment isn’t a guaranteed sign of recovery.
“We had an increase of 153 cases in January,” she observed.
The 2014 increase could be partially due to the Affordable Care Act. Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s portal for government health insurance, sends applicants through the Medicaid application as part of the process. Most of those approved for Medicaid would also be eligible for food assistance.
So far, Baydarian said, the county has seen many more new Medicaid cases than new food assistance cases.
“From the department’s perspective, it is too soon to make a connection between the slight reduction in recipients of food assistance and improvement in the economy.”
Kimberly Loving, executive director at LIFT-UP, a Garfield County nonprofit that provides food and other assistance, has observed some of the same trends in her organization and is cautiously optimistic.
”I think it’s starting to level out some,” she said. “Either that, or people have moved away. They just can’t hang on here any longer.”
Loving also observed that LIFT-UP’s soup kitchens experienced an increase in meals served during the same period, although this may represent a somewhat different demographic.
While it’s not clear whether this is a true economic turning point, one view from the ground indicates some easing.
McCabe Mallin of Glenwood Springs was laid off in October 2013 and has been using SNAP since then.
“It’s a tight job market, but it’s recovering better than it was a few years ago,” he noted. “Come spring and summer I think it should rebound.”
Mallin said he’d used the program before, when he was similarly out of work for a few months.
As for the disproportionate growth in the program locally, Mallin’s theory is similar to Baydarian’s.
“A lot of people came out here for construction jobs in Aspen and Snowmass,” he said. “Their jobs ended and they’re trying to stick around in the Valley.”
He also noted that workers in the Valley are susceptible to being unemployed or underemployed for shorter periods of time, rather than indefinitely.
“It’s a resort valley,” he said. “Some jobs are seasonal. I believe that’s why a lot of Valley residents are on food assistance programs, here and there.”
When it comes to the program itself, Mallin is a fan.
“It helps phenomenally. My fiancée and I both use it,” he explained. “We get about $347 a month. I find that we actually eat very healthy with just that bit of assistance.
“I know a bunch of people in the valley that have to use SNAP or LIFT-UP. Even if they have jobs, they’re just not getting all the hours that they need to pay their rent and buy food,” he added.
Asked whether he felt looked down upon for receiving aid, Mallin was upbeat.
“People are very understanding about it. I’ve never felt embarrassed about having to do it. Even when you pull out your EBT card at the grocery store, everybody understands and nobody cares.”