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Racial disparity uncovered in unrestricted access to food stamps in Ohio

Posted at 6:19 PM, Oct 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-11 18:19:27-04

Getting food on the table each day is a struggle for so many in Northeast Ohio.

A popular program to help feed the hungry in our community is coming under fire after a non-profit group in Cleveland uncovers a racial disparity when it comes to securing SNAP benefits.

It shows some Ohioans in need have an easier time getting support all because of where they live.

Right now, Cleveland residents need to work or volunteer to receive SNAP. The problem is many of them are technically eligible for a work exemption but can't get it because they live in Cuyahoga County.

"It seems unfair," said Kanika Williams.

Williams volunteers at the Garden Valley Food Pantry on Cleveland’s east side.

"It's important to be able to feed our brothers and sisters," said Williams.

Williams said many of the people she sees are not able to get SNAP benefits because they can't work.

"They go to these food pantries to get food all the time," said Williams.

New findings by the Center for Community Solutions shows 26 counties in Ohio are exempt from the work requirement.

"So people living in those communities don't have to work in order to receive those SNAP benefits," said Emily Campbell, Center for Community Solutions.

Ninety-seven percent of the people living in those counties are white.

It's a much different story for people of color.

"Ninety-five percent of African-American families live in communities where they may be required to work in order to put food on the table," said Campbell.

As for why there's such a large racial disparity, it boils down to a federal policy that uses only a county's unemployment rate to determine if its exempt.

"In Cleveland itself, the unemployment rate is much higher, but because we only look at counties for these exemptions people in Cleveland don't have the benefit," said Campbell.

If unrestricted snap benefits remain out of reach for people in areas where they're clearly needed, the director of the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, Jennifer Scofield, said the problem will be more than just hungry people.

"We could see an impact on their health status," said Scofield.

Scofield said organizations like hers will also take a hit. 

"We certainly see a challenge to us to be able to provide enough resources. We're going to have to be able to scale up our services to try and match that the best we can," said Scofield.

The Center for Community Solutions hopes its discovery sparks change in the criteria -- and a city's unemployment rate will be taken into consideration.

“They should petition, or they should make changes to the law to where those people in need of food stamps can get it," said Williams.

There is growing concern that the same criteria will soon be used to decide who's eligible for Medicaid benefits, creating yet another racial disparity, this time with access to healthcare.