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The New Face of Hunger: Working-Age People Are Now the Majority of SNAP Recipients

By Mike Andrew 

For the first time since SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “Food Stamps”) started in 1964, the majority of SNAP recipients are working-age people, and not children and seniors.

In other words, families who would have been food-secure even ten years ago now have to rely on government subsidies to buy enough food.

A new study by University of Kentucky economists and The Associated Press shows that the demographics of food insecurity have changed significantly over the life of the program.

First, federal spending on SNAP has doubled since 2008, reaching a total of $80 billion in 2013. More Americans are now on food stamps than at almost any other time in the past decade, indicating the effects of the “Great Recession.”

In fiscal year 2006, about 26 million people were enrolled in the program. As of July, 2013, almost 48 million people, or about a seventh of the U.S. population, are participating.

Second, the new report shows that 50.2% of the U.S. households receiving SNAP since 2009 include adults between the ages of 18 and 59. In 1998, the portion of such households getting food stamps was only 44%, according to the report.

In addition, the findings show that the percentage of SNAP households headed by someone with a four-year college degree has increased from about 3% in 1980 to 5% now, and the share of recipients who have at least some college training has leaped from 8% to about 28%.

Households headed by adults with at least a high school diploma have jumped from 9% of food stamp recipients to about 37% over the past three decades, the report says.

Thirty years ago households headed by high school dropouts accounted for the largest share of food stamp recipients. Now they account for only 28% of enrollees in the program.

The report identified multiple causes for the changes in SNAP enrollees, but it highlights the role that rising food costs and stalled wage growth have played in driving more working people under the poverty line.

The analysis notes that even the modest inflation of recent years has outstripped increases in average wages in the United States. In other words, a full-time job is no longer a guarantee against hunger.

While average weekly earnings in the U.S. rose from $768 in 2012 to $776 in 2013, rising inflation means that the 2013 earnings were equivalent to $2 less per week than the 2012 earnings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The U.S. minimum wage has also remained at $7.25 per hour since June 2009, even as the cost of living has increased.

While the need for SNAP assistance increases, funding for the program is being cut.

In the current fiscal year, SNAP funding is flat, after four years of increase. Congress’s decision not to extend the increases means about $5 billion less for the program this year. For a family of four receiving a maximum food stamps allotment, benefits fell from $668 to $632 per month, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The “compromise” Farm Bill signed by President Obama on February 7 cuts a further $8 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years. College students and immigrants who can’t prove their legal status are now ineligible for SNAP assistance.

Another 850,000 households in 17 states will lose $1080 per year in benefits because the Farm Bill changes the way the government estimates their home heating costs.

The new report on SNAP underlines the importance of the push for a higher minimum wage, as part of a comprehensive policy to address stagnant working class incomes in the U.S.

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