20% of U.S. households are on food stamps

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report (in PDF format here) that shows just how well our economy is recovering [snark]:

  • As of January 2012, the most recent month available, 46.5 million Americans or 20% (22.2 million) of U.S. households are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps program.
  • The average household in SNAP receives $277/month; the average participant receives $132/month.
  • Less than half of the SNAP benefit paid monthly actually goes to  buying food. 
  • SNAP is not supposed to be the only source of food purchasing for a household in the program. SNAP money represents about 30% of their income. The typical SNAP recipient also receives other “government transfer payments”: Social Security (21%), Social Security Insurance/Disability (21%), and child support payments (10%).
  • Households with children account for 71% of all demand for SNAP. The typical SNAP participant is a child under the age of 18; children account for 47% of the program. Surprisingly, the elderly are only 8% of the program.
  • Food stamps appear to be a long-term dependency. Those who were enrolled in the SNAP program in the early-to-mid 2000s remain enrolled for 7 years on average. Over half of those who left the program returned within 2 years.

Writing for ZeroHedge.com on April 20, 2012, Nic Colas of ConvergEx puts the numbers into perspective for us:

  • If the 46.5 million Americans on food stamps were a state, it would be the largest state in the Union.
  • If the adults enrolled in the SNAP program (about half the 46.5 million total) all voted for one Presidential candidate in the Fall, they would represent over 2x the margin of victory in the 2008 election.

Colas also gives us the historical background.

The SNAP or Food Stamps program got its start in the Great Depression — an effort to give some of the surplus produced by America’s agricultural system to the urban poor. The poor could buy “stamps” that entitled them to buy both regular foodstuffs as well as discounted surplus produce. The program went dormant during World War II but President Kennedy resurrected it in 1960, altering it from a pay-for-stamps system to a straight entitlement. With some tweaks and alterations, this is the program we have today – a nationwide system of evaluating those who are deemed to be at risk of food insecurity (typically those making less than 130% of the poverty line) and giving them money to purchase food.

Mindful that long economic recessions have a way of forming permanent habits among Americans, Colas warns that the Food Stamps program has all the signs of becoming a permanent entitlement:

The trouble, as I see it, is that the SNAP program has become wildly successful.  That is not a slam against the people that use it – I personally agree that no one, especially a child, should go to bed hungry in America.  But it’s not hard to see where this program is creeping its way from counter-cyclical stimulus and support to a lasting entitlement program that will be very hard to change.

[…] a large percentage of the population – 20% of households is a big number – is locked into this program.  There are endless studies in the world of behavioral finance that show that people are very quick to budget increases in disposable income as permanent. And don’t forget that by the USDA’s own numbers, most of the benefit is effectively NOT being spent on food.  In the narrowest sense, the money spent on the SNAP program is tiny relative to the Federal budget – $6 billion a month, or a drop in the $270 billion/month government spend.

But this is where I wonder about the long shadow of the last recession.  Have we reached a point where Americans want a clear and potentially permanent social safety net?  And how far should it go? Again, the current SNAP program is a cheap way to provide this, so from a budgetary or societal standpoint it is hard to argue that it breaks the bank.  But what if it is an emblem of something greater?  In many ways I think this is a big chunk of what the November election will be about, and at least the Food Stamp program seems to show that Americans have made up their minds.

Add to Colas’ observations the fact that 47% of SNAP recipients are children — and there is even more reason for us to wonder if new generations of Americans are growing up with a permanent sense of entitlement and dependency on Big Government to provide for them.



3 responses to “20% of U.S. households are on food stamps

  1. When I started college in 1960 at age 17, there were no real part-time jobs available to someone under 18 who was a full-time college student [I worked on farms and a few homes on the weekends, however], so I qualified for the original Kennedy Food Stamps. We couldn’t use them at retail grocery stores: one went to a USDA Commodity depot, often a make-shift staging area open one day a week. We got dried beans, five pounds of flour, one lb each of lard and butter, a large tin of peanut butter, some kind of potted meat in a similar tin, powdered skim milk.

    Fortunately I’d learned how to cook at home, so I made three loaves of bread a week, chili con spamo, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, and so on. It was meant to reduce the storage burden of USDA subsidised farm surplus. In that very basic mode it likely did a lot of good; today’s allows users access to junk food and non-nutritive sweets, so it’s making them pre-diabetic and obese. Of course, this is a boon for Big Pharma’s endless synthetic ‘medications’ to ‘help you get better’, which is impossible until the margarine, sugars, and other non-nutritive crapola are removed from diets. Today’s USDA Food Stamp program is a safety net, all right, but for Big Pharma!


  2. Average of 7 years on the program? Proof that there is no incentive to get off the program. Nothing more but securing votes and dependency on big govt.

    I know someone who is 52, unemployed, and has some money he inherited from his mom. He got a SNAP card. Proof our state doesn’t look into the financial background of those they give a card to.


  3. Ah, remember “It’s Free, Swipe Your EBT”? Great for generating Democratic voters… even if they only vote once.


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