By Michael Williams
Tourists driving through Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville are given the false impression that most Sevier County residents enjoy a greater degree of affluence than the residents of neighboring counties. But, just a few blocks behind the brightly lit marquees, promoting shows and attractions, and behind the numerous signs advertising jobs lay the grim reality of a growing poverty rate that betrays the colorful façade of the Parkway.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, 19.4 percent of Sevier County residents are currently receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also known as Food Stamps. Although that figure is lower than the state average of 20.4 percent, the figure is higher than the national average of 14.8 percent. The use of food stamps in Sevier County increased during the recession. According to the U.S.D.A. Food and Nutrition Services, the county recorded an increase of 7.5 percentage points since 2007, the year the recession started. Almost double the pre-recession figures.
According to the U.S.D.A. areas such as Sevier County, which are located outside metropolitan areas, tend to have a higher percentage of the population receiving SNAP benefits because incomes are generally lower in nonmetropolitan counties.
The median household income in Sevier County in 2011 was $41,794, compared to the Tennessee median of $43,180. Residents of Sevier County have a median household income that is almost 20 percent lower than the nation median household income of $52,306 in 2011.
While SNAP benefits provide much needed sustenance to recipients, the program is also being credited with sustaining grocery stores and maintaining jobs.
In 2011, residents of Sevier County received a combined $27,017,617 in SNAP benefits. The USDA reports that each $5 in SNAP benefits generates $9.20 in spending at local grocery stores. Without this additional spending many grocery store would be forced to lay off employees and some might shutter their doors.
According to a study conducted by the University of New Hampshire Carsey Institute, SNAP benefits start to circulate in the economy quickly. Grocers say they feel the impact of SNAP and other USDA nutrition programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
“Without SNAP and WIC, we wouldn’t be able to make it,” wrote the owner of the Mill City Market in the small town of Mill City, Ore., in a survey of rural grocers conducted by the Oregon Food Bank and Kansas State University Rural Grocery Initiative.
Owners know they have to stock the shelves to prepare for more business when SNAP benefits hit the streets, said David Procter with the Rural Grocery Initiative. These benefits help the bottom line of all grocers including mega retailer Wal-Mart which filed a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which company representatives were quoted as saying “a decrease in SNAP benefits last year could affect the retail giant’s bottom line.”
Many retailers and recipients of SNAP benefits are now concerned the federal government will soon rein in spending on the program meaning a reduction in benefits and retail spending.
This summer, Congress agreed to trim about $8 billion from SNAP over the next decade. Backers of the cuts said the program had expanded too much in recent years and was creating too much reliance on government assistance. SNAP expenditures increased 135 percent between 2007 and 2011.
U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.-R) backed a measure that would have removed SNAP from the farm bill entirely.