We hit on this topic recently, but it begs revisiting (again and again) as the sheer growth in the number of Americans on food stamps continues to shock and awe.
USDA recently released December numbers for its so-called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which show 486,503 persons added to the food-stamp rolls in December, bringing the total receiving help to more than 44 million. That’s up almost 7% just since June, and 13% compared to a year earlier. Households receiving food stamps swelled to 20.67 million, an increase of more than 263,000 in one month, and a nearly 16% increase in a year.
Compare back to a couple years ago and today’s rates of increase become even more astonishing. In 2007, average monthly participation was 26.31 million persons, so the December total represents a nearly 68% increase over the ’07 average. During the same period, the number of households receiving assistance soared 75%. That’s a startling increase, any way you look at it.
Remarkable, but not unheard of. Back during the tough times in the mid-1970′s (think oil shock, high unemployment, stagflation), the average number of monthly food-stamp recipients jumped from 12.86 million in 1974 to more than 17 million in 1975, peaking at about 18.5 million in ’76 — up 44% in two years.
As of December 2010, 14% of Americans were receiving food stamps. In 1970, it was about 2%, and even in the brutal recession of the early ’80′s, the percentage on assistance never topped 10%; it sank to about 6% by 2000.
That’s some sense of the number of people, but what about the cost?
Total cost in 2010 was $68.3 billion, up 82% from $37.6 billion just two years earlier. The average benefit per person was up 31% during the same period, to $133.79 a month. Converted back into 1980 dollars, that’s $50.06, but back then Uncle Sam was only paying out an average $34.47 per month. In 1970, the monthly per-person average was $10.55, but in constant dollar terms we’re now paying out more than twice as much — $23.57. So not only have the ranks of those receiving assistance ballooned, so has the amount of cash they get to buy food.
It’s a pretty stunning picture painted by all these numbers, which clearly suggests a nation where a growing number of people are still missing out on any “recovery.” Meanwhile, the extraordinary increases also raise questions about incentives and the de-stigmatization of receiving government food assistance. Is giving people more money and making it easier (via debit-type cards and direct deposit) to take the cash encouraging more folks to embrace Uncle Sam’s largess?
No one wants to see their neighbor go hungry, but this program is looking more like an out-of-control freight train, blowing a bigger hole in the federal budget.