Food Stamp Record

Community Organizing Ideas and Issues

Food Stamp Record
November 26, 2008
            New Orleans      The mounting economic tragedy seems to have us poised on the edge of the worst financial calamity since the Great Depression.  A footnote to this mess is that according to Jane Black writing in today’s Washington Post, we are also poised to set a new record in food stamp utilization by exceeding 30,000,000 participants for the first time this month.   The previous record was set in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina displaced a million refugees from one of the poorest cities in the United States, if any of you remember that disaster.
            In writing Citizen Wealth: The Campaign to Save Working Families being published by Berret-Koehler this coming spring I thought a lot about food stamps and how much more important they could be if all of the eligible families actually received these critical benefits.    This impending record breaking at 30 million — almost 10% of the US population — is short by a long mile.  Another 10 million families might be getting the benefits if all the eligibles were enrolled.  Participation rates in recent years have actually been falling, though on the ground many would say that they were pushed, since this was hardly an accident in most states.
            It makes a difference, not only to lower income families, but to the entire economy, especially the economics of cities where many lower income families live.  Black quotes Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s that “…$1 spent on food stamp benefits generates $1.73 of economic acitivity….”  This kind of multiplier affect trumps even the amounts received by extending unemployment insurance (another area where participation is way below the mark) or even state fiscal relief.
            Congress has failed to really do what is necessary to maintain the purchasing power of food stamps against the significant inflation in food prices in the US (and around the world!) which have exceeded 6.5% and are expected to hit 8% by the end of the year.  USDA only adjusts food stamps against inflation once annually and did so recently (September), so we are probably already below the water line.  Twice in recent years Congress has failed to increase the benefit levels.  I am hoping that when reauthorization comes up in September 2009, we can finally have a real fight to increase citizen wealth and do the right thing and ratchet up benefits by 20% or so.
            Right now to qualify a recipient must be below 130% of federal poverty level or $27,564 for a family of four.  The benefits now are only $109.93 per month per person.  This is no giveaway but one of the first lines of defense against hunger and a key ingredient in moving families away from poverty.
            This depression is a wakeup call that we need to do better.  Hey, it’s Thanksgiving.  Have a heart!