One in eight Americans, including one in four children, now receive government-subsidized food stamps, a record high.
The food stamp program, now called SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—subsidizes food purchases for more than 37 million people, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program.
Enrollment has been surging. In September 2009, the most recent month for which firm numbers are available, nearly 37.2 million people received SNAP benefits, an increase of 680,000 people from August, said Hans Billger, a spokesperson for the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA.
“The number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits has more than doubled since July 2000, when the national caseload hit a low point. SNAP participation has grown by more than 10 million in the last 24 months alone, an increase of 38 percent,” Billger said. He attributes the surge in enrollment to the deep economic recession.
In the 1990s there was an effort in Congress to end the program, but President George W. Bush ended that effort, which had been led by fellow Republicans. Instead, Bush ramped up the program and dumped the “food stamps” label—with its welfare program connotations—and renamed it Supplemental Nutrition Assistance.
Budget analyst Tad DeHaven of the Cato Institute noted a New York Times article on the surge in SNAP enrollment included the story of a man who “gave in” when “an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program.”
“The New York Times piece has quotes from a USDA official saying he hopes enrollment continues to grow. That’s nothing to celebrate. We don’t want people dependent on government,” DeHaven said. “We ought to want to see people working and self-reliant.”
Last September, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced grants totaling $3 million to six state agencies for pilot outreach programs to increase SNAP participation.
“Historically, seniors and the working poor participate in SNAP at lower levels than the general population, and these important outreach efforts can help close that gap,” Vilsack said in a statement.
DeHaven notes the federal cash welfare program kept rolls lean by not overly subsidizing the states.
“States until recently bore the entire cost of caseload growth, and nationally the rolls have stayed virtually flat,” he said. “We would have a more efficient government welfare system if the state governments that wanted to have welfare programs had to fund them using state tax revenues, without the subsidies and incentives for profligacy from Washington.”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.