How Many People Are on Food Stamps?

by Chris Sturr | January 05, 2010

A pop quiz: How many Americans are on food stamps? How many children in the United States are on food stamps? For how many people in the United States are food stamps their only means of regular financial support?

An article from Saturday’s New York Times gives the surprising (to me, at least) answers: One in eight Americans rely on food stamps; one in four children in the United States rely on food stamps; one in 50 Americans live on nothing but food stamps.

Here are some snippets from the article, which is based on a nationwide study, but focuses on Florida. The Republican congressman’s comment that providing food stamps to people is the equivalent of “paying people to sit around and not work.” What jobs does he suggest they sign up for, I’m wondering?

About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid—no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.

Their numbers were rising before the recession as tougher welfare laws made it harder for poor people to get cash aid, but they have soared by about 50 percent over the past two years. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.

The surge in this precarious way of life has been so swift that few policy makers have noticed. But it attests to the growing role of food stamps within the safety net. One in eight Americans now receives food stamps, including one in four children.

Florida officials have done a better job than most in monitoring the rise of people with no cash income. They say the access to food stamps shows the safety net is working.

“The program is doing what it was designed to do: help very needy people get through a very difficult time,” said Don Winstead, deputy secretary for the Department of Children and Families. “But for this program they would be in even more dire straits.”

But others say the lack of cash support shows the safety net is torn. The main cash welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has scarcely expanded during the recession; the rolls are still down about 75 percent from their 1990s peak. A different program, unemployment insurance, has rapidly grown, but still omits nearly half the unemployed. Food stamps, easier to get, have become the safety net of last resort.

“The food-stamp program is being asked to do too much,” said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group. “People need income support.”

Food stamps, officially the called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have taken on a greater role in the safety net for several reasons. Since the benefit buys only food, it draws less suspicion of abuse than cash aid and more political support. And the federal government pays for the whole benefit, giving states reason to maximize enrollment. States typically share in other programs’ costs.

The Times collected income data on food-stamp recipients in 31 states, which account for about 60 percent of the national caseload. On average, 18 percent listed cash income of zero in their most recent monthly filings. Projected over the entire caseload, that suggests six million people in households with no income. About 1.2 million are children.

The numbers have nearly tripled in Nevada over the past two years, doubled in Florida and New York, and grown nearly 90 percent in Minnesota and Utah. In Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, one of every 25 residents reports an income of only food stamps. In Yakima County, Wash., the figure is about one of every 17.

Experts caution that these numbers are estimates. Recipients typically report a small rise in earnings just once every six months, so some people listed as jobless may have recently found some work. New York officials say their numbers include some households with earnings from illegal immigrants, who cannot get food stamps but sometimes live with relatives who do.

Still, there is little doubt that millions of people are relying on incomes of food stamps alone, and their numbers are rapidly growing. “This is a reflection of the hardship that a lot of people in our state are facing; I think that is without question,” said Mr. Winstead, the Florida official.

With their condition mostly overlooked, there is little data on how long these households go without cash incomes or what other resources they have. But they appear an eclectic lot. Florida data shows the population about evenly split between families with children and households with just adults, with the latter group growing fastest during the recession. They are racially mixed as well—about 42 percent white, 32 percent black, and 22 percent Latino—with the growth fastest among whites during the recession.

The expansion of the food-stamp program, which will spend more than $60 billion this year, has so far enjoyed bipartisan support. But it does have conservative critics who worry about the costs and the rise in dependency.

“This is craziness,” said Representative John Linder, a Georgia Republican who is the ranking minority member of a House panel on welfare policy. “We’re at risk of creating an entire class of people, a subset of people, just comfortable getting by living off the government.”

Mr. Linder added: “You don’t improve the economy by paying people to sit around and not work. You improve the economy by lowering taxes” so small businesses will create more jobs.

With nearly 15,000 people in Lee County, Fla., reporting no income but food stamps, the Fort Myers area is a laboratory of inventive survival. When Rhonda Navarro, a cancer patient with a young son, lost running water, she ran a hose from an outdoor spigot that was still working into the shower stall. Mr. Britton, the jobless parking lot painter, sold his blood.

Read the full article. The maps are pretty compelling, too.

10 comments

Comments (10)

  1. Everyone is on food stamps. They just don’t admit they are. Even NY hipsters: http://potatoespeasandmilk.wordpress.com/

  2. I have a disabled adult in the home and he gets food stamps. They are a blessing for him. I watch all the people shopping with their food stamps. The same people tend to go on the same day and from what I can see food stamps are needed. Most of the people I see are stretched to the breaking point. The United States has changed. The middle class and the working poor are getting pushed down every day. I would say 90% to 95% of the people I see need the food stamps. People with children are strapped and kids need to eat. Many people are broken and tired.

  3. The fact is that 50% of black households are on foodstamps. By showing the statistics the way they are shown here you might be led to believe whites are more prone to welfare than blacks or hispanics which is not the case. The black population of the U.S. is just over 12% but they also make up approx. 40% of the welfare role. This would be equivilant to 324% if all things were equal.

  4. The fact is 60% of the households that get foodstamps are white. A lot of people think the majority of recipients of foodstamps are minorities, which isn’t the case.

  5. The latest edition of The Economist (July 16, 2011) looks at food stamps in America. What jumped out at me was the amazing ROI.

    For every dollar the federal government spends on food stamps, according to Moody’s Analytics (hardly a leftist source), economic activity increases by $1.73.

    Further, for every dollar spent on unemployment insurance, economic activity rises by $1.62.

    Tax cuts, on the other hand, generate less than a dollar of economic activity than the $1 they cost.

    So, setting aside the moral depravity that would focus America’s fiscal debate on slashing benefits to those who need it most*, isn’t it fairly obvious that the economy would benefit more – by 73% plus whatever the (unstated) cost of tax cuts might be – from putting food on people’s plates, rather than cutting taxes?

    = = = = =

    *Food stamps are available to those earning 130% of the poverty line, or less. The average benefit is $133 a month, and the maximum $200. Half of the recipients are children, and another 8% the elderly. Only 14% have incomes above the poverty line; 41% have incomes at half or less of the poverty line, and 18% have no income at all. Less than 10% of those receiving food stamps receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare).

  6. I saw one person using food stamps to buy 6 oz cans of mountain dew… like 1000 of them… at the tune of at LEAST 10x the price if she would have gotten 2 LIter bottles… or… thinking outside the box here…. could have drank water with lemon for 100th of the price and not been allowed to waster her money on a stupid, unhealthy, poorly packaged waste of space product….maybe if she REALLY needed the food stamps she would have been buying food that was a little better bang for the buck…. i felt like i helped her waste her money like that… after all I DID give her the money.

  7. I “love ” how prez OBAMA talks down about the USofA people and how we must be concerned about our fellow citizens.
    So I attempted to find the $ amount our “Government” { that you and me} pay out annually in welfare benefits (note not entitlements as in Social Security benefits into which the employee and employer paid into, 15% of one’s annual salary) Most of my research shows a great deal of info mainly in percentages BUT no $ signs.
    Where in the hell does Mr. Obama think the money which supports all the welfare programs comes from?
    When we talk about the super rich or 1%, the percentage they pay is always mentions but not the hundreds of millions$ poured in by these people . Are we hiding the dramatic with the less impressive percentages!
    Wake UP Don’t let the wool be pulled over your eyes with smooth talk and jive. Mr Obama step up to the plate and tell the truth after all you hold the HIGHEST position in the NATION If not the truth from you then from WHO!??? Stop campaigning and LEAD

  8. Foodstamps are not evil, they help many people who work or have money coming in, but they can’t afford food, because they have to pay bills. However, we should require drug testing, to keep people from taking advange of the program. Besides, druggies sell there food stamps for drugs. However, the program should not be ended. It helps people

  9. I’m sorry but this whole argument about what people buy is just stupid, no offense it anyone. We here the same tired argument every year “people are living off the government and don’t need food stamps because I saw someone buying steak and shrimp, I saw someone buy $20 worth of candy, I saw a lady with food stamps with a hairdo that looked expensive to me, or I saw someone with food stamps with a decent car.” Please get off it. What are we the choice police now? So, now we’re going to pass a law that if you have food stamps you have to ride the bus or have a car that barely starts? Are we going to pass a law saying that food stamp cards can only be used to purchase items under a certain amount per item or only on vegetables? Who cares if someone has nice hair? Maybe they have a sister who does hair. How are you supposed to get a job and get off food stamps if you have no transportation and look and ragedy? I guess people on food stamps should only be able to buy the store brand of products. If it was up to some Republicans, that would probably be the case. They’d make it where you could barely buy anything with food stamps to make people not want them.

    And Stop with this whole “they’re taking stuff away from me stuff.” Almost everyone on food stamps has worked at some point in their life and paid taxes, probably most of their life, so they have partially paid for their own food stamps to an extent.

  10. Once upon a time in the United states the majority of people went to church every week and put up some money for the collection. Much of that money went to buy food and other help for the needy. Because people were personally involved face to face they didn’t run off and waste the money on junk food or caviar. Centralized control is the bane of freedom in society. Government on this scale will always corrupt every program no matter how well intended it is.

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