By Kristina Cooke (Reuters),
Forty Six Million Americans (15% of the total population) is now surviving because of government food handouts in what has rapidly become a food stamp nation. That’s an increase of 74 % since 2007, just before the financial crisis and a deep recession led to mass job losses.
At the same time, the cost doubled to reach $68 billion in 2010 — more than a third of the amount the U.S. government received in corporate income tax last year — which means the program has started to attract the attention of some Republican lawmakers looking for ways to cut the nation’s budget deficit.
While there are clearly some cases of abuse by people who claim food stamps but don’t really need them, for many Americans like Saucedo there is little current alternative if they are to put food on the table while paying rent and utility bills.
“It’s kind of sad that even though I’m working that I need to have government assistance. I have asked them to put me on full-time so I can have benefits,” said the 32-year-old Saucedo who works for Wal-Mart to earns $9.70 an hour for about 26 hours a week.
So are her customers. Bill Simon, head of Wal-Mart’s U.S. operations, told a conference call last Tuesday that the company had seen an increase in the number of shoppers relying on government assistance for food.
“If they’re working, they often think they can’t get help. But people can’t support their families on $10, $11, $12 an hour jobs, especially when you add transport, clothes, rent.” said Carolyn McLaughlin, executive director of BronxWorks, a social services organization in New York.
The maximum amount a family of four can receive in food stamps is $668 a month. They can only be used to buy food — though not hot food — and for plants and seeds to grow food.
In 2004, paper coupons were replaced with cards similar to debit cards onto which benefits can be loaded. In 2008 they were renamed Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits though most people still call them food stamps.
Despite the bipartisan support for the program in the past, some of the recent political rhetoric has food stamp advocates worried.
Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich last year derided Democrats as “the party of food stamps“. And Republican leaders in the House of Representatives propose changing the program so that the funding is through a “block grant” to the states, rather than allowing it to grow automatically when needed due to an emergency, such as a natural disaster or economic crisis.
In some parts of the country, shoppers using food stamps have almost become the norm. In May 2011, a third of all people in Alabama were on food stamps — though part of that was because of emergency assistance after communities were destroyed by a series of destructive tornadoes. Washington D.C., Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon and Tennessee all had about a fifth of their population on food stamps that month.
“Food stamps have traditionally been insulated from politics,” said Parke Wilde, professor of U.S. food policy at Tufts University. “But as you look over the current fiscally conservative proposals, the question is, has something fundamentally changed?”