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Huge Growth Of Food Stamps In Northern Virginia Spurs Debate

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Jurisdictions in Northern Virginia have seen huge increases in the numbers of people collecting food stamps.
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Jurisdictions in Northern Virginia have seen huge increases in the numbers of people collecting food stamps.

Social service providers are seeing record numbers of people using food stamps in Virginia. 

The numbers are staggering. In the last decade, the number of people who receive food stamps in Arlington County has doubled. In Fairfax County, the number has tripled. And in the city of Alexandria, it's quadrupled — and not just because of the recession.

"We've just gotten better at finding the people," says Mary Katherine D'Addario, public assistance benefit bureau chief in Arlington. "We've basically just been using every good idea anyone gave us to try and enroll more people." 

More people are also eligible. A few years ago, the federal government expanded eligibility. Now, applicants are not asked whether or not they own an automobile. They're not asked about educational loans. In Virginia, applicants must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

But not everyone things the expanded eligibility makes sense. 

"It gets to be a slippery slope," says David Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University. "Once you go beyond the poverty line, it's not clear where you stop."

Armor recently wrote a paper that concluded most recipients of food stamps are actually above the federal poverty line. He argues the federal government could save $200 billion a year by tightening eligibility of anti-poverty programs to people who are actually in poverty.

"I don't think that we can afford to have a safety net that basically is aimed more at increasing the comfort level as opposed to providing true safety for those that are truly poor," Armor says. 

But that comfort level Armor speaks of is up for debate. The average individual benefit of clients served by the Arlington Food Assistance Center is only $4.03 a day, says Charles Meng, the nonprofit's executive director.

"Try to just feed yourself on $4.03 a day, much less try to feed your family, and you'll find that really doesn't go very far," Meng says. 

Meanwhile, local government keep expanding their outreach to the expanding universe of people who qualify, which means that the number of people who receive food stamps is likely to expand again in the next decade.

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