BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Participation in the federal food stamp program is increasing in Louisiana, even as it's dropping nationwide.
Almost 19 percent of Louisiana's 4.6 million residents participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, The Advocate reported.
The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services said there was a 9 percent jump from April 2015 to April 2016.
Some parishes saw dramatic increases in food stamp enrollment during the year: 37 percent in Jefferson Parish; 26 percent in St. Martin; 13.5 percent in Lafayette; and 90 percent in Cameron.
Part of the increase has to do with unemployment, part with a better sign-up system. But it's largely a combination of Louisiana's poor economy and a large workforce that earns less, on average, than the rest of the nation.
"It's a mix of more public awareness, maybe better administration, but the underlying reason is the state of the economy," said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a Baton Rouge-based group that advocates government policies on behalf of low- and middle-income people.
Oil prices have fallen from $111 per barrel in June 2014 to a six-year low of $37 in December 2015, causing Louisiana businesses that depend on the energy sector to slow production and delay investment. The slump aggravates a state budget already looking at significant deficits. Louisiana's energy sector lost 10,000 jobs.
"We talk about hits to state revenues, but behind those numbers are people who have lost jobs or aren't working as many hours as they were before," Moller said.
Because Louisiana wages are low, workers already are closer to the eligibility levels than workers in other states, said Loyola University New Orleans professor Jeanie Donovan.
"People who are working part time can't find full-time work, and people who are working at minimum wage tend to be the persons on SNAP," said Donovan, an economic policy specialist at the university's Jesuit Social Research Institute.
Since the 1990s, when welfare was reformed on a federal level, there is little assistance available.
"It really is the only program that people can turn to when they find themselves in a situation they didn't anticipate," Donovan said.
Statistics show 28.4 percent of Louisiana households receiving food stamps have at least one person working. Donovan said the average recipient is on the rolls for about nine months.
"That's about how long it takes for a person to work through their crisis," she said.