Max Denning

With the unemployment rate holding steady at its lowest rate in the past decade, fewer individuals are utilizing Oregon’s supplemental nutrition assistance program, known as SNAP.

In 2017, an average of 669,977 people in Oregon together received more than $83 million monthly SNAP benefits. The total allotment for SNAP recipients in 2017 was more than $997 million.

In 2018, those numbers fell significantly. The average (based on January-November, as December has not concluded) number of recipients in Oregon was 568,972, down more than 100,000 people from the year prior. The total allotment for SNAP recipients in the state in 2018 so far is $854 million, or approximately $71.2 million monthly.

Fewer individuals utilizing SNAP is to be expected with a low unemployment rate and a growing economy, said Dawn Myers, deputy administrator for self-sufficiency programs and SNAP program manager in the Oregon Department of Human Services.

“We have seen steady decline in the numbers of people participating, as it does correlate with the unemployment numbers,” Myers said. “It’s supposed to expand when the economy is not doing so well and people need assistance.”

While recipients of SNAP are on the decline state-wide, individuals living in rural areas tend to require SNAP assistance more than their urban counterparts.

A 2018 document titled “Rural Hunger in America,” released by the Food Research and Action Center — which, according to its website, is “the leading national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States” — found that from 2012 to 2016, 16 percent of households in rural areas received SNAP benefits while only 13 percent of households in metro areas received benefits. FRAC’s document states lower wages are part of the reason there are more rural SNAP recipients.

“Poverty is the root cause of hunger and is more acute in rural areas than in urban areas,” the document stated. “Rural wages, on average, are lower, and work-support services (public transportation and child care) are unavailable or harder to find and access in rural America.”

Myers explained in Oregon individuals are eligible for SNAP benefits if they make up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2018, the federal poverty level for single-person households was $12,140. The more individuals in a household, the higher the poverty level is. In Oregon, the Portland Metro area has a $12 minimum wage, and nonurban counties — which are primarily in Eastern Oregon — have a $10.50 minimum wage. All other counties have a $10.75 minimum wage.

In Baker, Union and Wallowa counties in 2018, the average monthly SNAP recipients were 3,324, 4,903 and 931, respectively. In Baker County, this was a decrease of 4.2 percent. In Union County, there was a decrease of 4.6 percent. In Wallowa County, the decrease was 7.4 percent.

While these decreases are significant, statewide the decrease was substantially higher — 15.1 percent. Myers said the program’s participation has been steadily declining since it topped more than 800,000 monthly recipients in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession. Yet, that doesn’t mean the program is less helpful than it was then.

“It’s a really wonderful program that assists an awful lot of people,” Myers said. “The shift that we’ve seen in participation for (SNAP) shows that this program does what it needs to do. It does expand and contract the way it has been set up to do.”