HONOLULU — Lillie Gonzales does whatever it takes to provide for three ravenous sons who live under her roof. She grows her own vegetables at home on Kauai, runs her own small business and like a record 42 million other Americans, she relies on food stamps.
Gonzales and her husband consistently qualify for food stamps now that Hawaii and other states are quietly expanding eligibility and offering the benefit to more working, moderate income families.
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reviewed by The Associated Press shows that 32 states have adopted rules making it easier to qualify for food stamps since 2007. In all, 38 states have loosened eligibility standards.
Hawaii has gone farther than most, allowing a family like Gonzales' to earn up to $59,328 and still get food stamps.
Prior to an Oct. 1 increase, the income eligibility limit for a Hawaii family of five was $38,568 a year.
"If I didn't have food stamps, I would be buying white rice and Spam every day," said Gonzales, whose Island Angels business makes Hawaiian-style fabric angel ornaments, quilts, aprons and purses.
Eligibility for food stamps varies from state to state, with the 11 most generous states allowing families to apply if their gross income is less than double the federal poverty line of $22,050 for a family of four on the U.S. mainland. The threshold is higher in Alaska and Hawaii.
With more than 1 in 8 Americans now on food stamps, participation in the program has jumped about 70 percent from 26 million in May 2007, while the nation's unemployment rate rose from 4.3 percent to 9.2 percent through September of this year.
"We've seen a huge increase in participation due to the economic downturn," said Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. "That's the way this program was designed."
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