Food Stamps Keep Going Up as Unemployment Falls: BGOV Barometer

Food-stamp use has been increasing even as unemployment declines, a break with historic patterns as more eligible recipients such as those stuck in part-time jobs take advantage of the program.

The BGOV Barometer shows that food-stamp enrollment rose to an all-time high in 2011 while the number of Americans on jobless rolls dropped to 13.1 million at the end of last year from a peak of 15.4 million in October 2009.

Food-stamp enrollment has risen and fallen in tandem with unemployment most of the time since the Food Stamp Act of 1964 created the modern program. Changes in qualification rules and efforts to reach more eligible people drove an increase that started under President George W. Bush and accelerated under President Barack Obama, said Parke E. Wilde, an associate professor at Tufts University in Boston who studies food-stamp policy.

“The main reason caseloads are rising is increased participation among eligible people, and a higher fraction of the population that is eligible,” Wilde said.

Spending for food stamps has more than doubled in four years to a record $75.7 billion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biggest expenditure. Funding over the next 10 years would be cut by more than $33 billion, about 4 percent, under a plan approved by the House Agriculture Committee on April 18. The Senate Agriculture Committee is preparing to take up a farm bill including more modest cuts in food stamps.

Participation Increases

From 2002 to 2009, the most recent year of available data, participation rose to 72 percent of eligible recipients from 54 percent, according to the USDA. About 46.45 million people received the aid in January this year -- almost one in every seven Americans -- down from a record 46.51 million in December and only the second drop since 2008, the USDA said earlier this month.

Joblessness peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 and was at 8.2 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The drop in unemployment doesn’t reflect 7.7 million Americans who are working part-time for economic reasons, such as a lack of full-time work, Labor Department statistics show.

Enrollment in the program is still likely to decline as the jobless rate improves, said Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary who oversees food stamps.

Congress may need to take further steps to rein in food-stamp spending, possibly through tapering benefits for recipients at higher incomes or experimenting with less-expensive block-grant initiatives in several states, said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“It’s an important program,” said Haskins, formerly a senior adviser to the George W. Bush administration on welfare policy. “There is money to be saved.”