Friday, September 2, 2011

Desperation Trumps Stigma: What's Really Driving the Food Stamp-ede

The number of food stamp recipients is likely to hit a new high of 46 million when the Department of Agriculture releases its latest report on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) -- that's over 18 percent of American households. This should drive conservatives through the roof. Fox News and other right-wing pundits have already been bemoaning surging food stamp enrollment, claiming food stamps are "teaching people to be dependent." You can expect those moans to grow louder. But they, like many other commentators are missing the point. Growing dependency is not the issue here. It's growing desperation -- desperation great enough to overcome the deep reluctance among many Americans about using stigmitized safety net programs.

Everyone’s food stamp narrative concentrates on unemployment as the cause of the increase in SNAP enrollment. In 2007, before the housing and financial crises unleashed almost double-digit unemployment, 11.8 million households relied on food stamps. As of May 2011, 21.6 million households pay the grocery bill with food stamps. More unemployment, greater eligibility, more food stamp use.

This is indeed too simple a story. SNAP is a means tested program, meaning eligibility is determined based upon income. The threshold for 4-person families is a gross income of $28,668, or 130 percent of the poverty line. In 2007, roughly 30 percent of American households were eligible for food stamps. That is equal to over 33 million families. In 2009, when unemployment reached a high of 9.9 percent, roughly 33 million families were eligible (calculated using the Census Bureau's Household Income distribution). The same number as two years earlier! more