More Texas seniors receiving food stamps
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By Cindy Horswell and Renèe C. Lee
Monday, July 16, 2012At age 64, Paulette Lanius is a "Golden Boomer" - one of the 76 million American babies born after World War II, a legacy of the legions of men and women described as the Greatest Generation.
But the future for this Houston woman and thousands of other seniors appears to be far from great.
The fastest-growing group of Texans receiving food stamps is the 60-64 age bracket. In the past six years, those residents receiving food assistance - now issued in the form of a benefit debit card - has jumped by 106 percent to 85,000 as of this month, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The total number of recipients from all age groups has increased 58 percent.
Authorities say seniors now applying for food stamps often complain of losing their retirement nest eggs in the economic downturn and finding their age to be a distinct disadvantage in finding work. Increasing food prices are also a factor.
Lanius, who once earned a comfortable $65,000 a year as an office manager for a small oil company, was used to donating items to charitable organizations like Second Blessing in west Houston.
But now for the first time in her life, she has not only become a beneficiary of others' generosity at Second Blessing, but she was also enrolled in the food stamp program there. "It's a very humbling experience," she said. "I never dreamed I'd be doing this."
After working nearly 18 years for the same company, she was laid off about two years ago when her employer went into receivership after a storm destroyed two oil platforms. She has not been able to land a steady job since then, forcing her to file early for Social Security and spend through her savings.
"I recently applied for a job at a frozen yogurt store. They'll probably look at the old salary listed on my resume and laugh," she said. "Employers look at people like me and think we'll only work a couple years longer which is not true."
She also represents those boomers identified as the "sandwich generation," because they help support their grown children and aging parents. In her case, her daughter lost her job and moved back home with four children.
Betsy Ballard, spokeswoman for the Houston Food Bank that serves southeast Texas, said her agency has not just seen an onslaught of boomer clients hitting area food banks but many of these people are also applying for food stamps.
107 percent increase
In the past eight months, her agency has interviewed 641 people in their 60s who applied for the debit card. This represents a 107 percent increase over the number that had applied during the same period a year earlier.
"We see this as a fairly significant change since the number of total applications we've filled out for all age groups has shrunk by 1,300," she said.
Still, the total number of Texas participants in the food stamp program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) stands at 3.6 million, which dwarfs the 85,000 enrolled in the 60-64 age bracket.
Yet the growth of the senior group has been outstripping all other age groups since 2007, said Stephanie Goodman, Texas Health and Human Service Commission spokeswoman.
In the past, many of the boomer generation shied away from charity, which they saw as a last resort, said Tiffany Wyatt, spokeswoman for the Catholic Charities community center in Richmond.
"But today some can't afford that kind of pride," said Telecia Rittiman, a social worker for Meals on Wheels.
Billie Jean Robinson, a 63-year-old who lives in the Acres Home area, said she started receiving food stamps nine months ago after her husband of 37 years divorced her. She said she was then no longer able to survive on her small disability check. Even with the $80 monthly debit card for food, she still is behind on her rent and received an eviction notice.
But she's not going hungry: "I can eat now without having to ask people for help."
A recent Associated Press survey found more than half of baby boomers anticipate retiring later than planned because of significant investment losses during the economic collapse. In fact, a fourth of those surveyed said they would never be able to retire.
Those seniors trying to find work say they're also hitting an invisible age barrier.
One 60-year-old food stamp recipient, Rose Drones, of Channelview, who lost her job as a certified nurse assistant after her car broke down, said, "People don't want to take a chance on you when you're older."
She now earns $200 every two weeks as a receptionist assisting visitors at the Denver Harbor community center looking for the same kind of help she needs.
Nationally, the unemployment rate for seniors, ages 60-64, is 6 percent - a percentage point lower than the rate for those ages 25 to 54. But the seniors saw a faster spike as their unemployment rate has zoomed 100 percent higher than it was five years ago.