Number of people on food stamps in Hawaii swells by 18,000 in a single month

Number of people on food stamps in Hawaii swells by 18,000 in a single month
Retail businesses on Oahu were allowed to begin reopening on Friday, and many did so — with a slew of new restrictions. Others waited, still putting together plans to help minimize the risk of coronavirus. (Source: Jonathan Saupe/Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - While Hawaii’s economy is slowly reopening, tens of thousands of people remain out of work — and many are facing tough decisions about how to make ends meet.

The scope of hardship can be seen in the long lines of cars at food distribution sites.

But the state Department of Human Services is also seeing increased need among those at the lowest income levels — a discouraging sign that more Hawaii residents are teetering closer to poverty.

Pankaj Bhanot, DHS director, said the number of Hawaii residents on food stamps — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — increased by 18,000 in April to more than 170,000. And from April 26 to May 8 alone, the state got more than 7,200 applications.

On average, DHS is getting about 500 new food stamp applications a day.

[To apply for the program, click here.]

Pankaj Bhanot, Department of Human Services Director
Pankaj Bhanot, Department of Human Services Director (Source: Hawaii News Now)

Bhanot expects those numbers will continue to rise in the weeks and months ahead, especially when the federal government stops issuing $600 additional weekly payments in July to newly-unemployed workers.

Households on food stamps must bring in 130% or less of the federal poverty level. For a family of four in Hawaii, that’s a gross annual income of $38,508. There are also additional eligibility requirements.

Bhanot said a series of streamlining efforts, including launching an online application, were able to ensure his department could handle a surge in food stamp applications quickly. The turnaround time for someone to get benefits is about two days from submitting an application, and a pre-loaded card is issued within five days.

“As the pandemic was happening on the continent, we anticipated that it was going to hit us,” Bhanot said. “We knew we would be overrun by demand.”

He added that he’s also working to get additional aid to families with school-age children, including more than 44,000 households with students in public schools who participate in free or reduced-cost lunch.

Meanwhile, the state is also seeing a significant increase in applications for Med-QUEST, which provides health insurance to low-income adults and children. In April, the program got more than 15,000 new applications.

The total number of people on the program in Hawaii is now at about 345,000.

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