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Income eligibility also rises, allowing more to qualify

By Fili Sagapolutele PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Dec. 29, 2009) - Recipients of the federally funded Food Stamp Program are getting a hike in monthly benefits beginning next month. In addition, there will also be an increase to the minimum gross monthly eligibility income level for applicants to qualify for the program.The program is administered locally by the Department of Human and Social Service (DHSS).

Gov. Togiola Tulafono first announced the hike on his weekend radio program, explaining that American Samoa’s request for an increase in food stamp benefits has been approved by the federal government and he recently signed documents to this effect.

Togiola thanked DHSS and director Leilua Stevenson for all they have done to ensure American Samoa gets this additional benefit.

Yesterday afternoon, Stevenson confirmed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food (USDA) and Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), have approved, not only, the request to increase foods stamp benefits for local recipients, but an increase also of the minimum gross monthly eligibility income level for applicants to qualify for the program.

The local program is also known as the American Samoa Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (ASNAP) and the two changes take effect Jan. 1, 2010.

Stevenson said these two developments in the ASNAP Program come at a critical time when American Samoa, like the rest of the nation, is faced with the devastating effects of the global economic recession; the closure of COS Samoa Packing; and the impact of the earthquake and tsunami on businesses and the community.

For Food Stamp benefits: All recipients will receive an increase of 6.4% in benefits beginning with their Food Stamp coupons in January. This is on top of a 13.6% increase in April 2009, received under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), said DHSS in a press release.

Current number of recipients, current average benefits and the expected monthly increase in dollar amount was not yet available at press time. However, it should be noted that each recipient receives different monthly dollar benefits.

The request for an additional 6.4% increase was made to reflect the actual increase in food costs in American Samoa since 2008.

DHSS cited the local Department of Commerce (DOC) Consumer Price Index (CPI) for the Food Index that was at 124.3 points by the end of the second quarter of 2009, which means the overall cost of food items has gone up by 20% in one year.

Although the 13.6% increase that was authorized under ARRA was welcomed by local recipients, DHSS said it was concerned that this increase was not reflective of the actual rise in food costs in American Samoa and fell short of helping local low-income families cope during these difficult economic times.

"I am pleased that the USDA has accepted our request for this additional increase in benefits for our ASNAP recipients", said Stevenson, adding that the 6.4% increase when combined with the hike under the ARRA brings the total increase in benefits to 20% which "I am sure will help our recipients in taking care of their nutritional needs."

For the hike in the minimum eligibility income level, it will go from the current $733 to $1,008 per month. This means any elderly, blind or disabled individual who makes $1008 or under, in gross monthly income, now qualifies for Food Stamp benefits granted they are either U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals or are aliens authorized by the Immigration board, said DHSS in their press release.

This increase was initiated by DHSS to reflect the actual cost of living in American Samoa based on the local CPI. The last time this was revised was in 2004.

"The increase in the eligibility income level is long overdue to ensure that low-income elderly, blind and disabled individuals in the Territory who qualify for ASNAP benefits are not disenfranchised because of a technical oversight to revise this criteria", said Stevenson.

To avoid the rush and unnecessary crowding at the ASNAP office, DHSS says it will not accept new applications for ASNAP during the first two weeks of January until the ASNAP staff is done with the distribution of Food Stamp coupons for the month of January.

ASNAP will begin accepting applications beginning January 18, 2010. A schedule will be made available to the public.

"These changes will make a big difference for American Samoa residents and families who rely on Food Stamp coupons for supplemental nutrition assistance and to those who would now qualify for ASNAP benefits now that the minimum gross monthly eligibility income has increased to $1,008," said Stevenson.

She noted her thanks for the support from Togiola, Commerce Department director Faleseu Eliu Paopao and DOC Statistician Meleisea Vai Filiga for their role in obtaining these much needed changes to the ASNAP Program.

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