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The new face of food stamps: working-age Americans

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 11:58 a.m. HST, Jan 26, 2014

WASHINGTON >> In a first, working-age people now make up the majority in U.S. households that rely on food stamps -- a switch from a few years ago, when children and the elderly were the main recipients.

Some of the change is due to demographics, such as the trend toward having fewer children. But a slow economic recovery with high unemployment, stagnant wages and an increasing gulf between low-wage and high-skill jobs also plays a big role. It suggests that government spending on the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program -- twice what it cost five years ago -- may not subside significantly anytime soon.

Food stamp participation since 1980 has grown the fastest among workers with some college training, a sign that the safety net has stretched further to cover America's former middle class, according to an analysis of government data for The Associated Press by economists at the University of Kentucky. Formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or SNAP, the program now covers 1 in 7 Americans.

The findings coincide with the latest economic data showing workers' wages and salaries growing at the lowest rate relative to corporate profits in U.S. history.

President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night is expected to focus in part on reducing income inequality, such as by raising the federal minimum wage. Congress, meanwhile, is debating cuts to food stamps, with Republicans including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., wanting a $4 billion-a-year reduction to an anti-poverty program that they say promotes dependency and abuse.

Economists say having a job may no longer be enough for self-sufficiency in today's economy.

"A low-wage job supplemented with food stamps is becoming more common for the working poor," said Timothy Smeeding, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in income inequality. "Many of the U.S. jobs now being created are low- or minimum-wage -- part-time or in areas such as retail or fast food -- which means food stamp use will stay high for some time, even after unemployment improves."

The newer food stamp recipients include Maggie Barcellano, 25, of Austin, Texas. A high school graduate, she enrolled in college but didn't complete her nursing degree after she could no longer afford the tuition.

Hoping to boost her credentials, she went through emergency medical technician training with the Army National Guard last year but was unable to find work as a paramedic because of the additional certification and fees required. Barcellano, now the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, finally took a job as a home health aide, working six days a week at $10 an hour. Struggling with the low income, she recently applied for food stamps with the help of the nonprofit Any Baby Can, to help save up for paramedic training.

"It's devastating," Barcellano said. "When I left for the Army I was so motivated, thinking I was creating a situation where I could give my daughter what I know she deserves. But when I came back and basically found myself in the same situation, it was like it was all for naught."

Since 2009, more than 50 percent of U.S. households receiving food stamps have been adults ages 18 to 59, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. The food stamp 

program defines non-elderly adults as anyone younger than 60.

As recently as 1998, the working-age share of food stamp households was at a low of 44 percent, before the dot-com bust and subsequent recessions in 2001 and 2007 pushed new enrollees into the program, according to the analysis by James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.

By education, about 28 percent of food stamp households are headed by a person with at least some college training, up from 8 percent in 1980. Among those with four-year college degrees, the share rose from 3 percent to 7 percent. High-school graduates head the bulk of food stamp households at 37 percent, up from 28 percent. In contrast, food stamp households headed by a high-school dropout have dropped by more than half, to 28 percent.

The shifts in food stamp participation come amid broader changes to the economy such as automation, globalization and outsourcing, which have polarized the job market. Many good-paying jobs in areas such as manufacturing have disappeared, shrinking the American middle class and bumping people with higher levels of education into lower-wage work.

An analysis Ziliak conducted for the AP finds that stagnant wages and income inequality play an increasing role in the growth of food stamp rolls.

Taking into account changing family structure, higher unemployment and policy expansions to the food stamp program, the analysis shows that stagnant wages and income inequality explained just 3.5 percent of the change in food stamp enrollment from 1980 to 2011. But from 2000 to 2011, wages and inequality accounted for 13 percent of the increase.

Several economists say food stamp rolls are likely to remain elevated for some time. Historically, there has been a lag before an improving unemployment rate leads to a substantial decline in food stamp rolls; the Congressional Budget Office has projected it could take 10 years.

"We do not expect income inequality stabilizing or declining in the absence of real wage growth or a significant reduction in unemployment and underemployment problems," said Ishwar Khatiwada, an economist for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University who reviewed the Labor and Commerce departments' wage data.

Full- and part-time workers employed year-round saw the fastest growth in food stamp participation since 1980, making up 17 percent and 7 percent of households, respectively. In contrast, the share of food stamp households headed by an unemployed person has remained largely unchanged, at 53 percent. Part-year workers declined in food stamp share.


Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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soundofreason wrote:
"President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night is expected to focus in part on reducing income inequality, such as by raising the federal minimum wage. " >>> The good news is there will be 2900 less Sams Club employees that have to deal with minimum wage. Raise it and more will follow. Be careful what you ask for - you may just get it.
on January 26,2014 | 11:08AM
saywhatyouthink wrote:
What ! ..... So you think $7.75 hr. is a fair wage? Makes no difference what kind of work, it's just not a fair or livable wage for anyone but minors still living at home. Sam's club is just not able to compete with Costco. customers are making a choice, simple as that. Neither has anything to with the minimum wage laws, neither company pays minimum wage for your information. Your thinking about Walmart.
on January 26,2014 | 01:26PM
droid wrote:
The point is, raising the minimum wage is NOT going to make the U.S.A. more competitive with third-world countries — who will take EVEN MORE American jobs if the wage is raised. The higher the wage, the more layoffs will occur. Get it? If it’s cheaper to pay some kid in a Chinese sweatshop than a well-paid American adult in an American business, why would a company choose to employ U.S.A. workers?! Is it any wonder 95% of everything you own is made in China?!!

Economics 101. You obviously failed it. Please get a clue!
on January 26,2014 | 07:39PM
HD36 wrote:
Wages in China have gone up more than 250% in the last five years. The so called sweat shop workers are usually provided living quarters so they send a good chunk of their income back to their family. Many of them are very satisfied. They don't have payroll taxes, social security taxes, medicare taxes and a host of other intergenerational income redistribution embezzlement programs by the government.
on January 26,2014 | 08:44PM
HD36 wrote:
Did you ever think that $7.75 is an unliviable wage because the value of the dollar has fallen 98% since the inception of the Federal Reserve in 1913? My parents were just talking about buying their first house in Fremont California, a 4 bedroom in 1963 for $22,000.
on January 26,2014 | 08:37PM
soundofreason wrote:
No not a fair wage. It is a starting wage for no skill workers. Get skills.
on January 26,2014 | 08:38PM
HD36 wrote:
That's exactly right. Corporations aren't run for charity.
on January 26,2014 | 08:35PM
Ronin006 wrote:
The main reason for the change in demographics of people receiving food stamps is that Obama changed the rules and increased the amount of income a household may have and still receive the government handout. That was in 2010 and no doubt was intended to buy votes for Democrats in the mid-term election.
on January 26,2014 | 11:26AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Thanks, guys. personal income for most Americans is the same as in 1979, except for the richest folk who have seen huge increases in the past couple years. Now, more people are on food stamps than ever before - costs are up 2x in 5 years. Almost 15% of Americans are on food stamps.

So, about that recovery - great if you are a banker, a corporation, a 1% person. Barry has done well for you. But if you are an average American you have seen a decline in real wages, fewer good jobs, dramatic drop in workforce participation, creation of a entitlement state, crazy spending for Homeland Security and military and 17 trillion in debt.

Hope and change.

on January 26,2014 | 11:44AM
RetiredWorking wrote:
Maneki, you are so off. In 1979, I made $22,900 and my wife stayed home with kids. My wife gave up working 6 years ago, but our gross income is now over $100K. I've always been an average Joe worker bee, not a banker, corporate or 1% person. Recovery has been very good, for me. Maybe I'm just fortunate.
on January 26,2014 | 03:35PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Well, good for you! Unfortunately your success is not typical. I wish all Americans could say that jobs and income and net worth increased like yours but that is not what the data tells us. For the average American, things have spiraled down badly or stagnated for years and years.
on January 26,2014 | 05:14PM
Nevadan wrote:
Sorry, one exception does not disprove anything. Good for you that you did well
on January 26,2014 | 05:47PM
droid wrote:
Hey RetiredWorking — congrats! I sure wish I had even a fraction of your amazing professed “good fortune.” But I am more inclined to believe President Barack Obama — who says people like you ARE a 1 percenter. In a televised interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Obama admitted 95% of income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the top 1% of the earning population. Just 5% went to the masses (unfortunately, NOT me).

Most of us are just one paycheck away from homelessness. ‘Hope and change?’ Not for the better.
on January 26,2014 | 07:56PM
Nevadan wrote:
The 1% got us in a recession in 2008. The middle class got Obama into the White House. Whom did Obama bail out when he became president? The 1%, of course. Is it a surprise that the gap is broadening?
on January 26,2014 | 08:01PM
HD36 wrote:
Yes, we we're led to believe the world was coming to an end primarily by Hank Paulson, the secretary of treasury, who had just come from Goldman Sachs as their CEO. Of course Bush didn't have a clue what was happening and the Fed Chairman, Ben Bernack was a scholar of the Great Depression. He misread the collapse as a liquidity crises when it was actaully a structural crises which would have burned itself out in the canyons of Wall Street. The big banks had turned into mega casinos that bet the house using 100 to 1 leverage and should have failed under a capitalist system.
on January 26,2014 | 08:55PM
RetiredWorking wrote:
droid, my avatar says it all.
on January 26,2014 | 08:30PM
Ronin006 wrote:
Maneki_Neko, more people are on food stamps today than ever before because Obama changed the rules in 2010 which increased the amount of income a household could have to be eligible for the government handout.
on January 26,2014 | 05:44PM
HD36 wrote:
The richest 8% of America had a net worth of $26 trillion in 2008. Today it's grown to $42 trillion. The cheap money injections by the Federal Reserve through QE allows them to make $50k a day off a billion dolllars through the repo market and sleep very well at night knowing the Fed has got their back.
on January 26,2014 | 08:46PM
Ronin006 wrote:
Yes, the number of people receiving food stamps has increased and so has the demographics of people receiving the government handout. That is exactly what the President intended when he changed the eligibility rules in 2010 and increased the amount of income a household can have and still be eligible for the handout. It happened to be the mid-term election year and no doubt was intended to help politicians from the President’s party and we, the taxpayers, are stuck with the enormous cost of this government handout.
on January 26,2014 | 11:52AM
Ronin006 wrote:
Why must the minimum wage be a “living wage?” It originally was intended to be a fair wage for people entering the work force for the first time, people with no skills or education. These are entry level jobs in which the no-skilled or uneducated high-school drop outs can get a start, learn work ethics and get a little experience before moving on the higher paid jobs. It makes no sense to say that everyone in the work force must be paid a “living wage” to enable them to buy a home, fancy car, get married and raise a family. If that is what you think, you are looking at a $20 Big Mac.
on January 26,2014 | 01:50PM
Ronin006 wrote:
The new face of food stamps was created by Obama in 2010 when he changed the rules and increased the amount of income a household could have to be eligible for the government handout. It occurred during the mid-term election year, but the rule change, of course, had nothing to do with helping Democrats win elections. It is interesting to note that the income criterion for food stamp eligibility is the same everywhere in the 48 contiguous states. It does not matter if you live in areas with very high costs of living, like New York City, or in the boonies of some states where the cost of living is very low. The handouts are the same.
on January 26,2014 | 05:28PM
Nevadan wrote:
Just before his re-election in 2012, Obama sent feds to different cities to encourage people to sign up for food stamps. They did a great job. He won the re-election.
on January 26,2014 | 05:29PM
HD36 wrote:
I would say the major causes of the working poor are unsound money policies ( pegging interest rates to an artificially low rate through QE) and closing the gold window in 1971 and unteathering the dollar, which led to unsound fiscal policy,( government allowed to grow without restraint, or direct taxation. If the government had to take a chunk out of your paycheck to pay for every program, you'd soon be taxed at over 79%. By going through the back door, and using deficit financing, we've racked up an unpayable $17 trillion dollar narional debt. We're gonna find out real soon that there was no recovery, no green shoots, no hope and change.
on January 26,2014 | 09:08PM
GorillaSmith wrote:
This must be more of the "hope and change" that the Great Leader promised us.
on January 26,2014 | 10:47PM
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