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Going Hungry in America

Food Stamps: Poverty’s Barometer

The fourth in a five-part special report.

As food and fuel prices rise, there’s one sure-fire way experts can chart the consequences of economic hardship: enrollment in the nation’s food stamp program.

To qualify for food stamps, people must be below or near the poverty line and have very little savings (for people 60 and older, no more than $3,000). That makes the program as good a barometer of impoverishment—and hunger—as any we have. And that gauge is rising fast.

This past May, 28.4 million Americans received food stamps, the highest level ever outside of a catastrophic disaster, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. “The rising ranks of people seeking food stamps really tells you how desperate the situation is for many people,” says Jessica Bartholow, director of programs for the California Association of Food Banks.

And the desperation runs even deeper than the official numbers suggest. The food stamp program reaches only about 65 percent of all Americans who qualify. Older adults are less likely than any other age group to use the program: Of people age 60-plus who were eligible for food stamps in 2006, only 34.5 percent received them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program reaches an even smaller percentage of older people in need, partly because Social Security benefits disqualify many from receiving more than the minimum in food stamp assistance—a scant $10 a month.

Unfortunately, even for those poor enough to qualify for the maximum benefit—$542 a month for a family of four—the food stamp program has been losing ground to rapidly rising food prices. Benefits are based in part on the Thrifty Food Plan, the USDA’s estimate of what it costs to buy a market basket of foods that represent a minimally adequate diet. The cost is determined in June, goes into effect in October and remains unchanged until the next annual adjustment.

“Especially at times of high food inflation, the adjusted numbers can quickly fall behind the actual price of food before the next adjusted levels kick in,” says Dottie Rosenbaum, senior policy analyst with the Washington nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which studies how fiscal policy and public programs affect low- and middle-income Americans.

Indeed, by June 2008, the cost of the food that makes up the Thrifty Food Plan’s market basket had soared 8.5 percent over the previous year. The result: Food stamp benefits fell short by $46 a month.

The purchasing power of food stamps has fallen even more for those older Americans who only qualify for the $10 minimum monthly benefit. The minimum benefit hasn’t changed since 1979, even though food prices have increased more than 160 percent since then.

For the working poor and retired people on fixed incomes, the shortfalls mean real deprivation. Many depend on food banks and meal programs to keep hunger from the door until the next paycheck or Social Security check arrives. As George Braley, senior vice president of government relations and public policy for Feeding America, a nationwide food bank network, told a congressional committee in May, “Among our clients who receive food stamps, they report that, on average, their benefits last two and a half weeks a month.”

Help on the way

Fortunately, the food stamp program, born in the wake of the Great Depression and revived by President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, will soon offer a far more generous helping hand. On June 18, overriding President Bush’s veto, Congress passed the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, better known as the farm bill. Its provisions increase funding for the food stamp program and include revised policies designed to ensure that more of the neediest, particularly among older Americans, have enough to eat. “The new farm bill is historic in many ways,” says Maura Daly, vice president of government relations and advocacy for Feeding America. “Its passage represents a real victory for hungry Americans.”

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