The Most Important Thing to Remember About America's Food-Stamp Boom

The reason a record number of Americans are on food assistance is that a record number are in poverty.
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(Reuters)

The Wall Street Journal is out with a long article today exploring why the number of Americans on food stamps isn't falling along with the unemployment rate. As of December there were 47.8 million people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, up more than a million over the year. So what's going on?

It's a complicated answer, and the WSJ does a good job teasing out the story's different threads. But I want to focus on the simple part of the issue for a moment, because in the big picture, it's also by far the most important part. So repeat after me: There are record numbers of Americans on food stamps today because there are record numbers of Americans in poverty (records begin in 1959.)  

As of 2011, there were 46.2 million men, women, and children living below the U.S. poverty line. There isn't much reason to believe that the last year of mediocre job growth has dented that number. And until it plunges, the food stamp rolls are going to stay full -- plain and simple. 

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It's true that not all food stamp recipients are technically impoverished. As part of welfare reform, the Clinton administration let states relax all sorts of rules about who could qualify. Today, families that are living a bit above the poverty line or have some savings can benefit, whereas twenty years ago they'd have been excluded. Then there's the issue of "categorical eligibility," which has been a giant bugaboo for some conservatives. It lets states automatically make residents eligible for food stamps if they receive benefits from programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (better known to most as post-Clinton welfare). And because the definition of "benefits" is fairly loose -- in some states, it might just mean the family received a brochure printed and mailed with TANF money -- some have accused states of using it as a loophole to sweep as many families into SNAP as possible. 

But here's the thing: Of all the social welfare programs the U.S. has, we should probably be worrying about food stamps the least. Its beneficiaries are overwhelmingly needy. In 2010, about 87 percent were at or below the poverty line and almost half were children. Only 3.5 percent had incomes higher than 130 percent of the poverty line. Meanwhile, the program arguably encourages more work by letting unemployed parents take the first job they can find, even if it won't pay enough to feed their family on its own. It's also hyper-efficient stimulus. The money has to be spent instead of saved, meaning it cycles quickly back into the economy. 

Our food stamp rolls are eye popping, but they're not the problem. Poverty is. 


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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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