As the recession deepens, more Americans go on food stamps

May 13, 2009

Number of Americans on food stamps keeps rising
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Changes are set to take effect soon, but recipients may still have trouble making ends meet.

Krystal Follet’s husband left her in January. Her boss fired her in March. Her landlord gave her an eviction notice two weeks ago.

A tough year for someone with two children to feed.

Follet has turned to food stamps. The 31-year-old Arlington woman is among millions of Americans applying for government help to get enough to eat.

“I don’t know how I would have fed them,” Follet said. “Even when I worked, it was a struggle trying to get everything paid.”

The number of people on food stamps has been increasing for months. In June, the figure was 28.6 million, according to the government.

The only other time so many Americans have been on food stamps was in late 2005, when great numbers of people applied for emergency food stamps after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Texas, a particularly needy state, has 2.6 million people on food stamps.

In 2006, nearly 16 percent of Texans lacked access to enough food for a full, active life, according to the Agriculture Department. Only New Mexico and Mississippi residents had lower food security.

Experts said the rolls are increasing not only because of the slowing economy and sagging wages of low-skilled workers but also because federal and state governments are reaching more eligible people and keeping them in the program.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission gave food banks money to hire community outreach workers to find and enroll eligible people.

Summer Stringer of the Tarrant Area Food Bank is one of those workers. She approaches people at food pantries, treats them like celebrities and walks them through the eight-page application.

“For some folks, this is the first time through here, and they’re really embarrassed,” she said.

Changes in law

Food stamp eligibility is based on income. Households with no income receive the most benefits. Households with incomes at 130 percent of the federal poverty line — a household of three making $22,900 a year, for example — get the least benefits.

Changes that will make more households eligible for benefits are coming with new federal legislation effective Wednesday.

For the first time, people will be able to deduct all child care costs when calculating their income, and they will not be penalized for having retirement accounts, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, the standard deduction on the food stamp application will be indexed for inflation. The minimum benefit will increase from $10 to $14 per month and will also be indexed for inflation.

‘Kind of rough’

Experts and recipients said the increase many will see in benefits is needed because food stamps are not enough to get by on.

Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior policy analyst at the budget center, said the complicated formula that determines how much money people receive has a maximum benefit of $1.60 per meal per person.

“But that’s not what most people get,” she said. “They get close to a dollar and a quarter a meal.”

Some food stamp recipients said they get extra meals from food pantries and church dinners.

Karen Johnson, 54, of Hurst said the $81 a month she gets in food stamps is not enough for her and her 17-year-old daughter.

“Sometimes I have to ask somebody to buy me a little food or something,” she said. “I just hate that. I hate to ask people: ‘Can I have some bread? Can I have some hamburger meat?’ It’s kind of rough on me sometimes.”

Harry Draper, 51, who lives from “one shelter to the next” in Fort Worth, said he can make his $162 allotment last and have $5 or $10 left by the end of the month. “I try to stretch it out,” he said.

Lavoria Murphy of Fort Worth, who lives with her 8-year-old granddaughter in a small rental house, vigorously studies sales and clips coupons to stretch her $45 allotment.

She said she will often buy canned or powdered milk instead of regular milk, and tortillas instead of bread because they’re cheaper. She’ll look for meat that is just about to expire and get it at a discount.

“I can’t shop like other people. It’s good to eat healthy, but if healthy stuff is not on sale, you can’t buy it,” she said. “If you’re on food stamps, you don’t have the luxury.”


Some say there is less need for food assistance than activists and some politicians would have the public believe.

Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington epidemiologist, said research repeatedly finds much higher rates of obesity in poor areas than in wealthy areas.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said the government’s quest to get more people on food stamps is not helping the poor.

“The majority of them are overweight, and the idea of what we need to do is give them more food is just kind of silly,” Rector said. “It’s a counterproductive program because it still rewards people for not working and not being married. . . . These programs have an anti-marriage bias in the sense that the family gets more from the program if a working father isn’t in the home.”

Rector’s research has led him to believe that the food needs of America’s low-income population are often exaggerated.

He wrote that poor children eat more meat than richer kids. “Most poor children in America today are, in fact, super-nourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II,” he wrote.

Not keeping up

But food prices have spiked recently, and wages have been sagging for decades.

Agriculture Department economist Ephraim Leibtag said food prices are up 6.1 percent this month over last September, the steepest increase in almost 20 years. The cost of groceries has increased by a third in a decade.

“If you’re buying the basics, you’re just getting by,” he said. Meanwhile, the working poor’s wages have fallen drastically behind, especially in Texas.

From the early 1980s to the early 2000s, incomes of the nation’s richest grew 62 percent, while those of the poorest grew only 21 percent, or $3,000 a year, according to a budget center study that took into account the cash value of food stamps.

That 21 percent increase gave poor people only a $143 bump per year in purchasing power.

Deborah Higgins, a 53-year-old mother of two living in the J.A. Cavile Place housing project in Fort Worth, said the need is so great that she sometimes skips meals for a day to have enough for her kids.

She said her $230 allotment won’t last a month. “I’m broke by the 25th,” she said.