TAMPA — The number of Tampa-area residents relying on food stamps has fallen to a level not seen since November 2011.
Since food stamp numbers peaked last August, more than 19,000 people have left the food stamp rolls in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to the Department of Children and Families.
But that still leaves nearly 500,000 people in the region depending on the federal government for help with their groceries.
“I get paid on the third of the month. By the fifth, we have no money,” said Carmen Corona of Tampa, who supports herself and her teen-age son, Ruben, each month on $160 in food stamps, disability payments and help from her retired parents in Homestead.
Corona has been on food stamps since a car accident in 2008 took her out of the workforce.
Analysts say the decline is a sign that the region’s economy continues to improve.
But the trend also reflects rule changes that made it harder for childless single people and those getting lower-than-average benefits to continue to qualify for help.
In November, benefits dropped sharply with the end of the boost in food stamp benefits, also know as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provided by President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package.
That change cut food stamp benefits around the region by nearly $40 a month per household, according to figures reported by the Department of Children and Families.
“Overall, nationally, cases are going down,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.
“It looks like the numbers may reflect improved economic circumstances,” said Patrick Mason, a labor economist at Florida State University. “As the employment circumstances of households increase, SNAP participation declines. So much for the argument that SNAP discourages work.”
Florida’s unemployment rate in March was 6.3 percent, up slightly from the previous month but down from 7 percent when food-stamp use was peaking last August.
The end of extended federal unemployment benefits in December should have created higher food-stamp demand, but that hasn’t happened, Dean said.
Since last year, Florida has been adding jobs in construction, manufacturing and other well-paying sectors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the state still has a long way to go to return its food-stamp numbers to their pre-recession levels a decade ago. Back then, Hillsborough County had 89,000 people on food stamps — about a third of the current figure.