Nassau County had fewer monthly food stamp recipients on average last year than in 2019, despite a significant increase in poverty and hunger that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to state figures.
The decrease was small — 2.9% — but it surprised local advocates for the poor, who saw long lines and an abundance of requests for food last year from food banks and pantries. The decrease also was in contrast with increases in Suffolk County and the state, according to figures from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
The need for food skyrocketed across Long Island, reaching a level worse than the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and the first year of the Great Recession, food bank officials say. Island Harvest, the largest food bank on Long Island, fed more than 550,000 families last year, an increase of 83% over the previous year.
The reason for the food stamp decrease in Nassau, according to county officials, speaks not so much to the degree of need in the county, but rather the positive effect of federal efforts to help those in need during the virus crisis. For example, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, the federal government increased the amount of money received by people on unemployment benefits by $600 a week. That boost, which lasted until August, elevated most recipients' income above the eligibility threshold for food stamps, officials said.
"You would think the caseload would skyrocket," said Nassau Social Services Commissioner Nancy Nunziata. "But actually the unemployment bonus and a number of other things that were distributed actually lowered the number of individuals who were eligible."
Officials said applications for food stamps flooded the office in the early months of the pandemic — with about 4,000 requests in April, about four times the usual rate. But when the agency took into account that extra income, most of those people collecting unemployment benefits were not eligible, Nunziata said.
From October 2019 to September 2020, which represents the federal fiscal year, a household of four could earn up to $3,219 a month and still qualify for food stamps. From October 2018 to September 2019, it was $3,138, according to the state.
Nunziata added that food stamp applications dropped in June as more people returned to work, to the point where requests hovered at about 1,500 a month — about 500 more than customary — and have remained at that level since.
Extra money didn't eliminate the need
Several advocates for the poor on Long Island said they agreed that the extra financial cushion on unemployment benefits decreased the number of people receiving food stamps. Many of those receiving food stamps are the working poor, they noted.
But while the extra money in unemployment benefits helped, it did not eliminate the need for many people, said Rebecca Sanin, president of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.
"Think about the cost of living on Long Island. Someone loses a good job, but they still have to pay their mortgage or their rent, their utility bills and buy food," Sanin said. "Many people still had to rely on their local food pantry."
In addition, some advocates worried that other pandemic-related factors might have contributed to the food stamp decrease, particularly for those low-income people who didn't have a computer to file applications, or were afraid to travel to an office due to the virus. Advocates worried that as a result, some people who needed food stamps fell through the cracks.
"When you look at the number of people in need. … Why aren't they applying for food stamps?" said Paule T. Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares.
In 2020, Nassau saw a monthly average of 42,747 people receiving food stamps, a federally funded program formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to figures from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. That represented on average a decrease of 1,282 people a month, or 2.9%, compared with the prior year.
In contrast, Suffolk County last year had a monthly average of 96,516, an increase of 5,413 recipients, or 5.9%, according to the state figures.
New York State in 2020 had a monthly average of 2.7 million people receiving food stamps, an increase of 75,126 people, or 2.9%, compared with 2019, the state figures said.
Nassau was not alone among the counties in New York that saw a decrease. A total of 37 of the state's 62 counties did, according to state figures.
Nassau's annual expenditure went up 36%
Despite Nassau's food stamp decrease, the amount of money distributed increased significantly in 2020, due to several federal add-ons to food stamps. Since the start of the pandemic, recipients have been able to receive the maximum allowed to them, as opposed to an amount calculated by measuring their income, expenses and other figures.
The maximum for a family of four is $782 a month.
Consequently, Nassau's annual expenditure for food stamps increased 36% last year, from $66.8 million in 2019 to $90.7 million in 2020, according to state figures. Suffolk also saw a 36% bump in the annual amount, from $149 million to $203 million, the figures said.
Sanin, whose agency helps people apply for food stamps, said Nassau has a different system than Suffolk for collecting a person's pay stubs and other proof of need. Suffolk has an automated system in which a person can snap a photo of a pay stub on their smartphone and send it directly to the agency.
Nassau, though, has a system in which people can either bring in the documents, fax them or scan and email them to the agency.
"Nassau's system is more paper-based, and it's more challenging in the pandemic," Sanin said. She noted that before the virus, many low-income people who don't have a computer used a library or post office to fax or email documents. Many libraries, she noted, closed during part of the pandemic.
"There were probably many people in need who didn't feel safe going to a library or post office," she said.
Nunziata said Nassau is in the process of switching over to that system for uploading documents.
Food stamps are not available for immigrants without legal documents, but some immigrants — with legal status or part of a family with mixed status — were fearful about applying for food stamps, said Sherry Tomasky, spokeswoman for the Albany-based Hunger Solutions New York. Those with legal status worried that receiving government assistance might hamper their efforts at citizenship, she said.
"It's a risk that many families didn't want to take," Tomasky said. "The fear of accessing federal benefits was real."
Before the pandemic, the staff at Catholic Charities Long Island had visited seniors in their homes, senior centers and health clinics to help them sign up for food stamps. But many places shut down or prevented visitors during the pandemic, and many seniors didn't want visitors in their home, said Amy Agiato, the group's director of nutrition and maternity services.
"With everything closed, we were not able to get out," Agiato said.
Federal government extends 15% bump
Looking ahead, the federal government has extended a 15% monthly bump in benefits for food stamp recipients, first approved in December, through September. A family of four gets about an extra $100 a month, which is already figured into the maximum amount of $782.
In Nassau, Nunziata said she expects employment, including seasonal jobs such as landscaping, will open up with the warmer months. She said she worries there could be an increase in need for food stamps when the state eviction moratorium ends May 1.
Food banks, meanwhile, say the need for food remains high. Randi Shubin Dresner, president of the Melville-based Island Harvest Food Bank, said it took a decade after the Great Recession of 2008 for the need to fall back to prerecession levels, and she expects the same to occur for the pandemic.
"People are still calling us. We can have 100 messages a day," she said. "They're skipping meals so their kids can eat. They're watering down [baby] formula. Seniors are choosing between buying medicine and food."
BY THE NUMBERS
Average monthly recipients for food stamps
Nassau in 2019 — 44,029
Nassau in 2020 — 42,747
Suffolk in 2019 — 91,103
Suffolk in 2020 — 96,516
New York in 2019 — 2.6 million
New York in 2020 — 2.7 million
Annual food stamp expenditures
Nassau in 2019 — $66.8 million
Nassau in 2020 — $90.7 million
Suffolk in 2019 — $149 million
Suffolk in 2020 — $203 million
New York in 2019 — $4.3 billion
New York in 2020 — $5.7 billion
SOURCE: State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance