Food Stamp Benefits Are the New Normal

Alden Wicker
Posted

Walk down a crowded city street, and it’s likely that every seventh person you see is on food stamp assistance. More, if you live in states like Mississippi, Michigan or Maine.

That’s because 15% of all Americans used food stamps to supplement their income in August. 45.8 million people were on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. In October 2007, before the recession set in, that number was at only 27.2 million—a 68% increase over the course of four years.

What the Recession’s Got Do With It

Food assistance exploded during the economic downturn, with the number of people on the rolls setting records every month except one since December 2008. Though the recession has officially been over since 2009 (according to the National Bureau of Economic Research), the number of people signing up has continued to rise, albeit at a slower pace. No wonder, unemployment is still plaguing the workforce (despite a proposal from Obama to try address the issue), salaries at jobs are lower than before and poverty is at a 17-year high.

The states feeling the pain the most are Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, Oregon and Louisiana, each with one out of every five people on food stamp assistance. Wyoming has the lowest level, at 6%. (You can see your own state’s food stamp usage here.)

To Cut or Augment?

This news comes as lawmakers argue about cutting many government programs, including SNAP benefits.  Some see the rise in food stamp benefits as a symptom of a bad economy, while some see it as a symptom of wasteful government.

Your Economic Cheat Sheet

Want to know what’s happening on Wall Street—and beyond? Sign up for The Market, LearnVest’s new weekly newsletter
SIGN UP HERE 

For instance, to bring home the point about what it’s like to try to live on food assistance, the Food Stamp Challenge, a national group of religious leaders seeking to raise awareness about challenges facing those on the SNAP program, convinced a dozen Democratic members of Congress to live on $4.50 a day for a week. That is meant to mimic the average $133 a week allotted to a no- or low-income person on SNAP benefits. The most a family of four could get on SNAP benefits would be $668, depending on their situation.

After trying her hand at grocery shopping on such a tight budget, Congresswoman Eleanor Norton of Washington D.C. said, “What I’m really learning is that it is impossible to buy nutritious food for $31.50 a week.”

Meanwhile, at least one Republican thinks that the rise in SNAP rolls is due to fraud and would like to see the program cut. (The USDA says only one cent out of every food stamp dollar is wasted on fraud.) In an effort to crack down on frivolous use of food stamps, New York City Mayor Bloomberg proposed banning SNAP benefits from being used for soda, but the measure failed amid a heated debate. Currently, SNAP benefits can be used to buy any food that is not a prepared meal.

Tell us: What do think rising food stamp usage says about about the American economy and government programs?

 What do you think should change?

 

Image credit: clementine gallot on Flickr

  • http://www.facebook.com/AshleyVictoriaBurton Ashley Burton

    I hear Dollar Tree is accepting them now…

  • 3lucy2

    I think that unless a crock pot and a rice cooker are included that banning prepared meals is really dumb.  Most people I know who might be eligible for food stamps have already cut their housing costs to the point that a stove and kitchen are not available for them.  Electricity and running water yes, but not a kitchen to cook in.
    If you’re making rice and beans you can certainly stay well within a $30 weekly budget if you have the tools to make it work.  A pound of beans can last easily for several days of meals and costs around $2 a lb…add another $3 of vegetables and another $2 for a lb of rice and you have some very nutritious and low cost meals.

  • Jelun

    It seems, 3lucy2, that you must be thinking only of single people. Rice and beans may be fine for the short term for an adult, children need a more complete diet.
    One of the things we should be doing is providing incentives for real supermarkets to do business in neighborhoods where there are limited resources.

  • LooHooLove

    I agree with Jelun. And what part of the country do you live in where you can buy a weeks worth of vegetables for $3?!? I live in Maine and even a loaf of bread that is made with WHOLE WHEAT flour (not refined) costs nearly $4! In the summer, I can bake my own, but in the winter we have to keep our heat at 65 so we can afford to buy oil and it’s not warm enough to get my bread to rise. 

    As a family of 4 that avoids processed foods whenever possible and shops the farmer’s market all summer long, I can tell you that it’s difficult to maintain a budget of $125/week. And that’s packing school/work lunches and cooking nearly everything — right down to weekly batches of waffles and pancakes on the weekends. The reason the SNAP program catches so much flack is thanks to the people who use the benefits to purchase super-expensive things like lobsters (which I see happening all the time) or ultra-cheap stuff like ring dings and ho-hos (though, when many stores offer these at such a cheap price, it’s understandable why people using SNAP benefits purchase them). 

    There should be more regulation on what people can use their benefits for. All farmer’s markets should accept them (ours does) and people should see less of their benefits disappear when they purchase fresh produce — for example, a $2.00 pound of produce would only cost $1.00 on SNAP.  

  • Kayla Gates

    Would like to see benefits be for a LIMITED TIME!!! And would like to see it limited to non-prepared foods and include food preparation classes with benefits-I would be willing to teach for free.

  • Denise

    My church has a supper every Wednesday night that is mostly attended by the very poor.  Tonight I sat at the table with a man who said he’s a contractor, and because of the crash in the housing market, he has no job.  He’s currently living in his truck, and because he has no address, he can’t even get a library card, let alone any kind of assistance that requires an address for things to be mailed to.  As we move into the winter months, remember those who  have not home.

  • calico43

    i work in a convenience store. i am all for someone getting a benefit if they need it.however, i see their balances for both food and cash.. many of them are getting close to 1000 bucks in stamps and cash. everyone should work there for a day and you will see. people working under the table , women having too many kids and a man living with them and working . candy,soda,energy drinks. this is what they buy.you wonder why people are getting so fat

  • Bobby

    I would love to see the cheaters and scammers kicked off the system. If you offer free stuff OF COURSE people are going to take the handout. The apartments I live near are FULL of cheaters. They all have live in boyfriends who pretend they live elsewhere and they all drive nicer cars and wear nicer clothes than I do yet they don’t have enough $$$ for food. Yeah right.

    We provide incentives for people to not work, not marry, and have tons of kids and then we wonder why we have such an epidemic.