Food Stamp Benefits Are the New Normal

Food Stamp Benefits Are the New Normal

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.

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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


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