Food Stamp Participation Increases as Economy Lags

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

Almost a million more people participated in the federal government's food stamp program for the needy between April and July, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.

The latest federal statistics indicate that nationally, participation in the low-income nutrition supplement program rose from 28.08 million in April to 29.05 million in July, the last month for which the figures are available, a department spokeswoman said.

The July figure is the highest since the all-time peak of 29.8 million in November 2005, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, spokeswoman Jean Daniel said.

She said the current national numbers probably reflect economic troubles, such as the spring flooding in the Midwest, that were at work in the early summer and spring. There often is a delay of a few months after a crisis before people sign up for the program.

"From a historical perspective, it's usually a lag time of two to three months," she said.

Experts said yesterday that the figures also reflect the broader national economic distress.

"The economic downturn is the obvious reason that most people are turning to the food stamps program at this point," said Colleen M. Heflin, an assistant professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. "I think it's a much better barometer of the pain on Main Street than the larger economic barometers."

James P. Ziliak, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, said low-income families are "turning to the food stamp program for assistance because they're having difficulty making ends meet" as a result of stagnant wages and rising prices for gas and other essentials.

"The food stamps program is quite sensitive to changes in the overall macroeconomy," he said.

In the Washington area, food stamp use has risen sharply over the past year.

The District had a 9.2 percent jump, from 83,000 in July 2007 to almost 91,000 in July this year.

In Maryland, participation went up 14.9 percent over the same period, from 324,000 in July 2007 to almost 373,000 this past July.

And the number of Virginia residents in the program rose 7.5 percent, from 517,000 in July 2007 to 556,000 in July this year.

Nationally, the numbers have been rising steadily for several years, despite periodic dips. There were 25.5 million participants in July 2005; almost 26 million in July 2006; and 26.6 million in July 2007.

Food stamp use also spiked after the national economic recession of 1990-91, rising from an average of about 20 million people a month in fiscal 1990 to an average of 27 million a month in 1994 and then falling to 17 million in 2000, according to the statistics. The yearly numbers started heading up again with the recession of 2001.

The USDA's Daniel said the economic upheavals of the past few weeks, such as the 159,000 jobs the economy lost last month, probably will not be reflected until the November numbers become available in late fall.

She attributed the increases in foot stamp use to rising economic troubles, improved program outreach, and more people who are eligible deciding to participate. Only about 67 percent of those eligible take advantage of the program, she said.

She said a certain public stigma remains regarding food stamps, even though a debit card has replaced the old stamps and, as of Wednesday, the program has a new name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The program, which dates to 1964, is the largest federal nutrition initiative for low-income households, according to the USDA. It is available to people with low incomes and limited resources. Almost half of the participants are children.

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