Why Are a Record Number of Americans On Food Stamps? Hint: It's Not Just the Economy.


On the day before Thanksgiving, the news is awash in headlines about the record levels of food-stamp usage. As U.S. News & World Report has put it:

More Americans Will Use Food Stamps For Thanksgiving This Year Than Ever Before

…Usage of food stamps among low and no-income families has spiked since the collapse of the U.S. financial system four years ago. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, average participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp program, has increased 70 percent since 2007. And economists have warned that usage of food stamps won't go down until unemployment improves.

More here.

The most recent number for total food stamp beneficiaries is about 47 million people.

There's no question that the crap economy significantly gooses the number of people qualifying for free or reduced-price food.

But it's also the case that the increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistace Program (SNAP) is in large part due to the expansion of who qualifies. Under Barack Obama's stimulus spending, the number of people getting food stamps increased from 36.2 million in 2009 to to 42.2 million in 2010—just a year later. As the left-leaning folks at the Economic Policy Institute put it back then:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed last year widened eligibility for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance so that more adults without dependents could qualify. The Recovery Act also increased benefits, providing additional relief to some of the country's poor individuals and families…

EPI touted food stamps' stimulative value, too.

Politico points out how broadened eligibility plays out: 

The share of food stamp benefits going to American households with gross incomes over 130 percent of poverty has more than doubled in the past four years, according to the most recent data compiled by the Agriculture Department.

The 130 percent of poverty cap dates back to the early 1980s and recipients making more than that get a smaller payout than people below it. But the share of SNAP households that make more than 130 percent of the poverty line went from 2.3 percent to 4.7 percent; half of all states actually allow recipients to make more than 140 percent of the poverty line and still qualify for food stamps.

So as with all sorts of growth in goverment outlays, the historic rise in food stamp usage is not a clear-cut case of economic necessity. There's a huge amount of policy fudge factor too.

Indeed, consider this fact as well: Between 2000 and 2006, spending on food stamps doubled under George W. Bush. That's an odd statistic given the way the economy performed and the tech-bubble recession gave way to unemployment rates in the 4 percent range. And for those who remember Newt Gingrich's attempt to cast Obama as the "food stamp president," it's a reminder that as with most awful policies in place during this 21st century, it's bipartisan disaster all the way down.