Justice
3:06 pm
Mon November 19, 2012

6 facts about food stamps

Credit flickr user r_gnuce

Turkey. Mashed Potatoes. Stuffing. Pie. 

It's just about all I can think about right now. 

Thanksgiving is a special day, but the truth is, I'm extremely lucky. I could stuff my face any day I want. If I'm hungry, I go to the grocery store and buy something to eat.

That's how it is for most of us in America, but not all of us. 

This week, we'll be talking a lot about hunger on this blog. I think a lot of us ignore the hunger issue because we think that it's basically taken care of. If you can't afford food, you can get help from the government, right?

Yes. But that's not the full story. 

The federal government actually has 15 programs to deal with hunger and nutrition. But the largest of these by far is the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, which most policymakers refer to as SNAP and most Americans just call "food stamps."

Last year, SNAP accounted for 73 percent of all spending on food and nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and food and nutrition was about two-thirds of the entire USDA budget. It's a massive program, and the entire point is to eliminate hunger as an issue in this country. 

On many points, the SNAP program does its job. But many Americans still go hungry. To help understand how this can be, consider these six facts about food stamps: 

  1. The number of people receiving food stamps in America is at an all-time high. You heard Mitt Romney say it during the campaign, and he was right. About 47 million people received SNAP benefits as of August. That's 1 in 7 Americans.
  2. The cost of the food stamp program is also at an all-time high - nearly $72 billion last year. That's more than double what it was before the recession. The Congressional Budget Office says most of the increase is because more people became eligible for food stamps when the recession hit. But, even on a per-person basis, SNAP costs have risen 39 percent since 2007, largely because the 2009 stimulus program increased the amount that people could receive. 
  3. Food stamp benefits still provide far less than what the average family spends on groceries. The USDA reports last year the average SNAP recipient received $133.85 in benefits per month, which works out to $30.89 per week. By contrast, the average American spends $47.50 per week on groceries, according to the USDA. Even low-income Americans spend more on food on average than what food stamps provide. 
  4. 40 percent of people on food stamps have a job. They just don't make enough money to be lifted out of poverty, according to the USDA. And if you only look at people who receive food stamps for a year or less, 75 percent of recipients have a job. 
  5. Nearly a quarter of people who received food stamps also had "very low food security." This stat, once again, comes from the USDA. It seems like a bit of a paradox: how can you be food-insecure if the government pays for your food? Because, basically, if you're eligible for SNAP, you're not as able to afford food on your own. And, as mentioned above, the benefit you receive isn't quite enough to keep you from going hungry. What does it mean to have "very low food security?" Ninety-seven percent of people with very low food security say they ran out of food and didn't have money to buy more. Forty-eight percent lost weight because of a lack of food. Twenty-seven percent say an adult went without eating for a full day. 
  6. Hunger is still an issue for people on food stamps, but starvation is not. It seems almost silly to even mention it now, but there was a time when people actually would die of starvation in the U.S. The UN's World Food Programme reports that hunger still kills more people globally than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Certainly, starvation does still happen here, but I could only turn up examples in which the starvation came about because of severe mental illness or criminal-level abuse and neglect.

What do we make of all this? Yes, the food stamp program is expensive, and costs have skyrocketed in recent years. Yes, the program still hasn't eliminated the problem of hunger in America. But it has helped us along on one major milestone as a society - starvation has become nearly unthinkable.

So, you can argue that food and nutrition programs such as SNAP are imperfect. You can argue that costs are out of control. You can argue that major changes are needed. But you really can't argue that we should go back to a society where there was no guarantee against starvation. Food stamps have become that guarantee.