April Job Numbers: Food Stamp Rolls Grow Even While the Economy Recovers

The number of people receiving food stamp benefits continues to grow in the country despite the unemployment rate dropping to 7.5%, its lowest mark in five years, a resurgence in the housing market, and the Dow Jones busting through the 15,000 mark. The economy is simply not generating enough income for large swaths of the country to put food on the table. The marginal impact of the slow recovery, relaxed eligibility requirements, underemployment, and rising food costs are all contributing to the increase in the number of food stamp recipients.

Under President Obama, the number of people receiving food stamps has increased by 49%. Figures from The Department of Agriculture show that there are 47.8 million people and 23 million households receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Factcheck.org reports, “That’s a rise of nearly 15.8 million under Obama, more than the 14.7 million that were added during Bush’s eight years in office.”

The economy has had a net gain of over 1.5 million jobs during Obama’s tenure. Again according to Factcheck.org, Obama has added more jobs to the economy in his first four years than Bush did in his eight years. Juxtaposed with the rise in food stamp recipients, this is a clear indication that the jobs being created are not necessarily the type that move people above the poverty level. The country remains woefully under-employed.

Once upon a time it was presumed that enrollment levels in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program would fluctuate with the unemployment rate. However, SNAP eligibility is not tied to unemployment — it is linked to poverty levels. Until the poverty rate in the country declines, SNAP enrollment will remain high.

Judi Bartfeld, a professor in the consumer science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Fiscal Times, “The criterion for food stamps isn’t that you’re unemployed, it’s that you’re poor enough to qualify.” The qualification process adapted by the states has made more of the working poor eligible for SNAP benefits.

Broad-based categorical eligibility was introduced with the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 and since then at least 40 states have adopted this methodology. The shift has been encouraged and promoted by both states and the Obama administration, and encourages people to apply for services before they become destitute. States that promote the SNAP program and utilize the more lenient eligibility process have seen an explosion in the number of people receiving benefits. Nevada for example, experienced an 89% increase in household caseload after making the change.

The Department of Agriculture found that families of three or more persons spent about one-third of their after-tax income on food. SNAP is broadly available to most households with low incomes, and benefits from other low-income assistance programs are usually not included under the broad-based categorical eligibility requirements. Low-income families do not have the after-tax income to meet basic food requirements, especially when food prices continue to rise.

One of the key performance indicators of a country’s economy is the ability of its citizenry to feed itself without government assistance. It’s hard to argue that people are doing better if they still can’t buy groceries.