They’re not called food stamps anymore, but they have assumed an important role in the U.S. Virgin Islands economy, with as much as one-quarter of the territory’s population likely to receive the assistance in the next year, according to Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch.
Finch spoke Thursday to the Rotary Club of St. Croix, talking about some of the programs his department oversees.
Food stamps, now the federal State Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, bring in so much revenue to the territory that Finch said he sometimes jokes – in a gallows humor kind of way – that his department is one of the most important revenue producers in the V.I. government.
The role of SNAP in the territory has grown sharply since the worldwide economic slump began in 2008, Finch said. For the three preceding fiscal years, 2005-2007, the territory paid out between $20.5 million and $21 million to about 16,000 recipients. Then the economic slump took hold, and the numbers jumped.
In 2009, the territory saw the amount of SNAP funds in the territory increase to $40 million, the fifth highest increase in the U.S. that year, and just a few tenths of a percent from the second highest increase in the country. In 2010, the territory handled $43 million in SNAP payments. In 2011, the fiscal year that just ended, the total rose to $48 million, about $4 million a month, Fletcher said.
The budget for the 2012 fiscal year anticipates payment of $50 million in SNAP to 26,000 people, just under 25 percent of the territory’s population, Finch said.
While those numbers are indicative of the depth of the world’s economic woes, they at least represent money coming into the territory, he noted.
"Nobody saves food stamps," he said. "It all gets spent."
The territory’s notoriously high prices are figured into the program, he added. In the V.I., a single person who qualifies as a "family of one" with no other income would receive $257 a month in benefits.
By comparison, a single person in the States would receive $200.
Finch added that the money that comes into the territory supports jobs in the food supply industry. Those employees take their pay and spend it in the community. Every dollar that comes in has a "multiplier effect" as it circulates, so that the cumulative impact of each dollar comes to $1.80, he said.