More than 40,000 South Dakota children, from infants to teenagers, live in families with incomes low enough to qualify for the federal food stamp program, creating challenges to obtaining a fruitful childhood and a prosperous life in adulthood.
The number of children in South Dakota families receiving aid in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rose by 47 percent from 2007 to 2017.
Even with some recent improvements, the number of children living on food stamps is on a significant long-term rise in South Dakota. About 42,265 children lived on food stamps last year.
Studies show that people who grow up in poverty can face educational, social and health challenges in childhood and adulthood.
The number of children on food stamps in South Dakota spiked to nearly 50,000 during and after the Great Recession of 2008.
But as the rest of the state and nation have mostly bounced back, the food stamp data show that lower-income families have been largely left out of the economic recovery.
"When the recession hit, it just pushed them all into that abyss and they could no longer make ends meet," said Matt Gassen, CEO of Feeding South Dakota, the largest charity food provider in the state. "There's an even bigger portion of those who didn't make it out of poverty and are still behind."
The jump in food stamp enrollment since the mid-2000s came as other child poverty indicators also ticked upward in the state, according to a recent report compiled by South Dakota Kids Count, an outreach center at the University of South Dakota.
The review showed an increase in eligibility in the National School Lunch Program for low-income students and a significant rise in the number of children in families qualifying for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program during that period.
The income, wage and government assistance data from South Dakota mirrors a national trend over the past decade in which childhood poverty rose. Between 2005 and 2017, 46 of 50 states saw a jump in the percentage of children in families that received some type of public assistance. In 2005, fewer than one in five American children lived in a family receiving public assistance, while last year that figure had risen to one in four, about 18.6 million children in all, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Small gains, but poverty still nags
Enrollment in the SNAP program has dropped slightly in each of the past five years in South Dakota, according to Tia Kafka, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services that administers the federal food stamps program.
Meanwhile, Gov. Kristi Noem said during her budget address in January that the state saw a drop last year in the number of people receiving benefits under some programs supported by the Medicaid program funded the state and federal governments.
Yet major challenges remain for thousands of families with children in South Dakota.
Individuals and families qualify for food stamp benefits based federal poverty guidelines, meaning a single person would qualify with an annual income of $15,800 or less, while a family of four qualifies with a total annual income of $32,640 or less.
About two-thirds of SNAP recipients in South Dakota are children, elderly or disabled. The monthly benefits cannot be used to buy alcohol, tobacco, dry goods or household items, pet supplies, vitamins or medicines or take-out foods. In 2018, about $130 million in benefits were issued with an average payment of about $275 per family per month.
Georgia Christensen of Sioux Falls wants to welcome her new baby into a stable environment and couldn't do that without aid from SNAP and other government programs.
Christensen has a learning disability that makes it tough to hold a job; she said she lost her $11-an-hour position cleaning offices last year because her boss said she moved too slowly. Her husband is also out of work.
Together, they are raising a teenage girl and have a baby due this month. Christensen said she isn't sure how the family would get by without her $252 monthly food stamp allotment and the $741 monthly disability payment she receives from Social Security.
"We run out towards the end of the month. It's a struggle, and I do worry," said Christensen, 34, who also visits local food pantries if necessary.
Christensen, who was born in Winner and grew up in Nebraska, said her mother was on food stamps while she was growing up.
"I don't think people understand what it's like to need food stamps," she said. "Some people say that you guys are just living off the government or are too lazy to work, and that's not true. There's some people who can't work or are disabled and they need the benefits."
Christensen has no savings and receives medical benefits through Medicaid. She said her hopes for the future are limited by her inability to land and hold down a good job. "What I hope for in life," she said, "is I hope that we can make it."
Effects of poverty wide-ranging
Gassen, of Feeding South Dakota, said some people have a misimpression of what poor people in the state look like.
"Poverty doesn't look like a ghetto or a Third World country in South Dakota; it's here and it's everywhere," Gassen said. "It could be the child at the playground, the neighbor coming home from work or the parents and child you sit next to in church on Sundays."
Cathy Brechtelsbauer of Sioux Falls, state coordinator for the group Bread for the World that fights hunger, said low-income families in South Dakota were hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008 and continue to be hurt by stagnant wages that haven't kept up with inflation.
"This whole time since that recession, we've never seen a great recovery among the lower incomes," Brechtelsbauer said. "People have gotten jobs, but it's not like incomes have picked up at that lower range."
A recent News Watch analysis of wages in South Dakota showed that the state has the third-lowest average wage in the nation and that a great number of state residents who are employed full time are struggling to get by. According to federal Department of Labor data from 2017, roughly 71 percent of employed South Dakota residents, about 292,000 people, make under $40,000 a year.
Lisa Henley's two children are well aware that their family is on government assistance, and the realization for them is painful.
The stress and stigma of poverty rise to the surface when they go to school and notice how their peers dress or when they sleep over at a friend's home and see the abundance of technology, toys and food not present in their own home.
Her 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are old enough to know that their mother is just getting by, she said.
"It affects them a lot," said Henley, 39, who lives in Summerset in southwestern Meade County. "It's hard for me, and them, when I have to tell them, 'Sorry, honey, I can't afford that right now.'"
Henley has recently worked as a waitress and pizza shop employee but became unemployed when she slipped in the shower and broke her wrist.
Even when she worked both jobs, Henley made so little that she qualified for the federal food stamps program. She receives about $400 a month in SNAP benefits, which helps but doesn't provide full food stability. "Things cost so much that it never goes far enough," she said.