TAMPA -- The number of Floridians using food stamps reached a historic peak in January, when nearly one-fifth of the state's 19 million people relied on the federal program to eat.
The numbers run counter to the good news for the state's economy reported the same month: Florida's unemployment rate dipped to 7.8 percent in January, falling below the national average for the first time since the recession began in 2007.
Taken together, falling joblessness and peaking demand for food aid reflects the state of the state's job market, said Patrick Mason, a labor economist at Florida State University.
"Food stamp eligibility is more closely linked to the absence of income than the absence of a job," Mason said. " 'Employed' doesn't mean 'full-time job.' 'Employed' does not equal 'job with above-poverty wages.' "
February unemployment figures aren't available yet, but the food stamp numbers for last month show signs of hope: Usage dipped 1/10 of 1 percent.
State officials are saying it may be the start of a positive trend for the rest of the year as the economy continues to pick up steam.
"We definitely think it is a sign of a decline," said Terry Field, spokesman for the Tampa office of the state Department of Children and Families.
All told, 3,612,960 Floridians got food help from the state and federal government in January. In Hillsborough County, which has the state's third-highest number of food stamp recipients, the number was 277,633. In Pinellas County, it was 151,914.
The contrast in trend lines between unemployment and food stamp usage is consistent with states and communities nationwide.
A study by the Washington-based National Employment Law Project found that, while the recession erased mostly middle-income jobs, most of the jobs created by the recovery have been low-wage ones.
"Job growth is important, but it's not just about more jobs," said Elizabeth Kneebone, a poverty expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's also about what kinds of jobs are available and the wages they pay."
Iliana Flores, a Citrus County native, knows that all too well.
Flores and her husband, Joseph, have relied on food stamps, Medicaid and other assistance to make ends meet since leaving the Marine Corps.
The military continues to help with their rent near MacDill Air Force Base while Joseph, 30, attends school to become a communications network technician, a job similar to the work he did in the Marines. He's planning to start a new job next month that will pay about $11 an hour, Iliana said.
"He should be making enough to where we'll be coming off the food stamps," said Iliana, 24. She's staying at home at the moment to care for their 9-month-old son, Daniel.
"I didn't want to sign up for food stamps because I was proud," Iliana said.
But the costs of living -- car payment, gas, special food for Daniel, who has a birth defect -- proved to be overwhelming without government aid, she said.
"We're stretching our budget pretty hard," she said.
The Flores family is contemplating leaving food stamps just as the tide of people needing food aid may have begun to ebb.
In February, about half the state's 67 counties saw a drop equal to or greater than the statewide figure of 1/10 of 1 percent.
Hillsborough's numbers, which have bounced up and down since peaking last fall, dipped again slightly in February. Pinellas' food stamp numbers have been on a downward track since peaking in November.
Field, with the Department of Children and Families, said the agency thinks the economy may be improving enough to keep food stamp rolls on a downward track.
"Overall, trends have definitely leveled off," Field said. "The trend over the last four months has been the lowest increase over a four-month span since at least 2010. And with more Floridians working, the decrease in the number of people receiving benefits that we saw last month is expected to continue."
The first signs of improvement may have started showing up months ago in county health departments across the state. That's where mothers with small children enroll with the Women, Infants and Children program. WIC supplements food stamps and cash welfare to help feed nursing mothers and children younger than 5.
"Over the last year and a half there's been a slight decrease," said Jennifer Waskovich, a WIC program manager at the Hillsborough County Health Department.
Waskovich said the cause of the drop is unclear.
It could be that financially strapped people are having fewer children. It could be that more women dropped the program after their children reached 1. But it could also be that people are getting work that lets them drop their WIC vouchers, she said.
"We don't know why our numbers are decreasing," Waskovich said. "But the numbers have been down throughout the state."
Iliana Flores said she expects her family to continue to rely on WIC and Medicaid to cover the costs of her son's dietary and medical needs. As she spoke last week, Daniel was in the hospital for yet another surgery.
She would like to look for part-time weekend work when Daniel is more stable.
Mason suggested rising employment may be pushing food stamps higher. People without work qualify for aid for three months in a three-year period. Working people get a steadier supply of aid.
"Not having a job reduces eligibility for food stamps," Mason said. "In Florida, food stamps are more of a job subsidy than a relief from unemployment." ___