Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Food stamp users hit all-time high

This is from The Washington Post:

Fueled by rising unemployment and food prices, the number of Americans on food stamps is poised to exceed 30 million for the first time this month, surpassing the historic high set in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.

The figures will put the spotlight on hunger when Congress begins deliberations on a new economic stimulus package, said legislators and anti-hunger advocates, predicting that any stimulus bill will include a boost in food stamp benefits. Advocates are also optimistic that President-elect Barack Obama, who made campaign promises to end childhood hunger and whose mother once briefly received food stamps, will make the issue a priority next year.

"We soon will have the most food stamps recipients in the history of our country," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a D.C.-based anti-hunger policy organization. "If the economic forecasts come true, we're likely to see the most hunger that we've seen since the 1981 recession and maybe since the 1960s, when these programs were established."

The Agriculture Department is set to release the new numbers as early as this week. Agency officials declined to confirm the figures but outlined them in a briefing last month for advocates and administrators of state food stamp programs. Breaking the symbolically important 30 million mark comes on the heels of government data showing that 11.9 million people went hungry in the United States at some point last year. That included nearly 700,000 children, up more than 50 percent from the year before.

There is a double-whammy of who is taking food stamps and why. The first is unemployed Americans, where unemployment has jumped to 6.5 percent in October, and is predicted to increase to 8 percent by the end of 2009. These Americans may also be struggling to pay their subprime mortgages, with the increased adjustable interest rates, on their homes. As Americans are trying to keep up with their mortgage payments, on falling values of their homes, some will find themselves being laid off by companies trying to cut back on a slowing U.S. economy. With high mortgage payments and no jobs, is it no wonder that more Americans are turning to food stamps.

Of course, the second whammy is the rising costs of food. According to the WaPost, the consumer price index for food and beverages had jumped 6.1 percent in October. This increase in food prices disproportionately affects low income Americans:

For low-income families, who spend a higher percentage of their monthly budget on food, that rise has been particularly painful. Food stamp benefits are adjusted for inflation only once a year, and as of September, the maximum benefit fell $64 a month short of the cost of the thriftiest, USDA-established diet for a family of four. The annual adjustment in October of 8.5 percent largely brought the benefit in line with food costs again, but the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan policy group, estimates that if current inflation persists, by December benefits will again fail to match the cost of the thrifty food plan.

"At a time when we have more people turning to the food stamp program, it is less and less able to meet their basic food needs," said Stacy Dean, the research center's director of food assistance policy.

Americans with higher incomes spend a lower percentage of their monthly budget on food. And since food stamps have not kept up with inflation, the low income Americans will still spend more of their dollars on food--even with the food stamps. And it is only going to get worst as unemployment continues to rise.

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