ST. LOUIS — New numbers out this week on the social needs of Missourians paint a bleak picture of a state hurting from the national economic downturn.
A monthly report from the Missouri Department of Social Services said that nearly 1 million Missourians — 1 in 6 people in the state — needed federal aid last month to keep food on the table. That's the highest count ever, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in Thursday's edition.
The number of people in the state receiving welfare also rose in January, for the seventh-straight month, the longest sustained increase in years, the report said.
It also said the state's health insurance rolls grew for the fifth month in a row.
"People are in need," department spokeswoman Arleasha Mays said. "There's no doubt about it."
Nearly 996,000 people used the food stamp program run by the state and paid for by the federal government. That figure was up almost 14 percent from a year ago, when roughly 876,000 claimed food stamps. The new count is more than twice as many as the 2001 monthly average of 440,000.
In January, the average household received $238 in monthly benefits to support children, the disabled or working single adults.
"I only cook for myself once a day because it's too expensive," said Maggie Perez, 57, a woman with diabetes who gets by on $107 a month in food stamps, Social Security disability payments and meals at soup kitchens.
The increase in Missouri's food stamp usage mirrors a national trend. More than 31 million Americans use food stamps, nearly twice as many as in 2001.
"In the short run, during a recession, this is reality," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit group focused on hunger and malnutrition. "Those numbers will continue to go up for several more months. Hopefully, it's not years."
Missouri is one of the first states to see a steady increase in its welfare rolls during the current economic downturn. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families pays small amounts of cash aid to the working poor, people who live below the federal poverty limit.
The state's welfare rolls had mostly fallen since the mid-1990s because of requirements that aid recipients find work or job training, combined with a growing economy in the last decade.
That decline continued until this summer. In June, about 100,000 people claimed benefits. The figure rose to more than 106,000 people in January.
Also, since September, participation in the state's health programs for the poor, young, old and people with disabilities has increased after several years of gradual and regular declines. In January, more than 842,000 people received state medical coverage.
All of those indicators are expected to increase as the economy continues to falter, said Bob Quinn, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.
"The time comes when you've gone through all your savings, you've borrowed as much money as you can, you're out of work, and you need help," Quinn said. "That's what we're seeing now."
Spokesmen for both Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican Speaker of the Missouri House Ron Richard said job creation was the answer to the rising need for government assistance.
The stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama pays for an increase in food stamp benefits in April and relaxes restrictions on benefits to unemployed adults without children. Extra money is also slated for states to handle emergency Temporary Assistance program funding and to shore up Medicaid programs.
With the state facing tough budget times, Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said, the stimulus this month would be crucial to filling gaps.