Participation near record levels even as unemployment declines
Government waivers, uneven recovery blamed for ongoing need
Wendee Crofoot lost her job as a fundraiser for a non-profit in 2011. After exhausting her savings and giving up her Mountain View, California, apartment she ended up working part-time as a restaurant cashier.
The low pay qualified her for food stamps,so she signed up. “It wasn’t something I imagined would ever happen,” said Crofoot, 46. “There just weren’t any jobs.”
During the 2007-2009 recession, state and federal governments actively encouraged people like Crofoot to take advantage of the aid. Millions did, and many are still claiming benefits. Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps, remains near record levels, even as the unemployment rate has fallen by half.
“When unemployment was rising people said enrollment would fall sharply when things got better,” said Parke Wilde, an associate professor of nutrition policy at Tufts University in Boston. “That hasn’t happened.”
Another economic downturn could send costs to new heights.
About 45.4 million Americans, roughly one-seventh of the population, received nutrition aid last October, the most recent month of data. Unemployment was 5 percent that month. The last time joblessness fell to that level, in April 2008, 28 million Americans used food stamps, and the program cost less than half of what the government paid out last year.
Even though eligibility rules remained unchanged during the recession, annual spending for the program, administered by states with federal dollars, more than doubled in five years to a record $76.1 billionin 2013.
Several reasons explain the high numbers. Governments have made it easier to sign up for the program. More than 85 percent of eligible food-stamp recipients took assistance in 2013, the most recent year of available data, compared to 70 percent in 2008. The higher sign-up rate among those qualified accounts for 8.6 million more people on food stamps — about half of the program’s total increase.
The uneven recovery has swelled the ranks of long-term unemployed and reduced the number of people working or looking for work, further boosting demand. Even for those with jobs, pay may be lower than in the past: In real dollars, SNAP recipients in 2014 had net incomes of $335 a month, the lowest since at least 1989.
“The economy’s recovery is bifurcated,” said Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary who heads the program. That makes food stamps crucial to “a very challenged safety net,” said Concannon, who previously directed state-level food-stamp programs in Maine, Oregon and Iowa.
Some enrollment-boosting measures, such as the waivers for able-bodied workers, are being discontinued as unemployment declines. But a bigger food stamp program has become part of the U.S. social landscape, as lower-income populations continue to struggle and states use federal aid to support them, said Wilde, the Tufts professor.
“The U.S. is a bit strange among advanced economies in that we don’t like to give people cash,” he said. “SNAP plays a bigger role for low-income Americans because everyone needs food, and it’s an acceptable form of assistance.”
Crofoot’s assistance is ending: She’s found a second part-time job, one she said she hopes will get her career back on track. Her food-stamp benefits stopped last month.
“I called two weeks ago to cancel,” she said. “I’ve lost my savings. All the things you count on for your future, they’re gone.
“But I’m grateful to everyone who helped.”