Eligibility for food stamps — officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — depends on household income and assets, with some deductions made for child care, housing and work-related expenses. As such, there’s a direct correlation between the poverty rate and the number of Americans who are eligible for food stamps. In fiscal year 2010, about 85 percent of all households receiving food stamps were under the poverty line, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, just as poverty was also rising to record levels.
There have been policy changes that have relaxed the eligibility requirements for food stamps, but they’ve been enacted by state governments, not Congress or the Obama administration. Since the end of the Clinton administration, states have had the option to raise the maximum limits for gross income and assets. In 2008, about 20 states took that option, according to the USDA, and now 43 states have.
Obama did make some passing changes to the food stamp program under the stimulus: He waived a three-month waiting requirement for unemployed, childless adults and raised benefit levels for those already eligible. But those changes are temporary and affect only a minority of the overall caseload.
There has been a steadily higher share of eligible people applying for food stamps, increasing the participation rate from 65 percent in 2007 to 72 percent in 2009. That’s partly because of a push that began during the Bush administration to streamline the program, reduce paperwork and encourage the eligible to sign up. But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, it’s also been because the poor have become even poorer during the recession.
Amid the political attacks on the issue, it’s also worth noting the demographics of who receives this assistance.The recession has increased the proportion of working poor who receive food stamps. “In 1990, 42 percent of all SNAP households received cash welfare benefits and only 19 percent had earnings,” the USDA notes. “In 2010, only 8 percent received cash welfare, while 30 percent had earnings.” Nearly half of food-stamp beneficiaries are children under 18, and about 8 percent are elderly. Finally, as for the question of race — which has ignited some of the backlash against Gingrich — about 34 percent of beneficiaries are white, 22 percent are black, 17 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian or Native American, and 20 percent “race unknown.”