The boom in Food Stamps

One area where the languishing U.S. economy is breaking records these days is in need. One measure: more than one in seven Americans is now on Food Stamps, an all-time record.

Here’s a graph of the share of the U.S. population drawing benefits from what used to be called the Food Stamp program, and is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is no doubt some bureaucrat’s idea of catchy.

As of September, the latest month available (data here), over 46 million people, or almost 22 million households, were drawing SNAP benefits. That’s 14.8% of the population. That’s almost 5 points above the previous records. Note that the line kept rising during most of the weak Bush-era expansion, unlike the declines seen in the expansions of the 1980s and 1990s. There was a brief decline in 2006 and 2007, but that was quickly and savagely reversed with the onset of the Great Recession—and it’s continued to rise despite two-and-a-half years of official recovery.

Benefits are remarkably low. The average SNAP recipient gets $134 a month in assistance, which works out to $4.40 a day. That’s 10% less than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “thrifty” meal budget, and about half its “moderate” budget. (See here.) The thrifty plan is a descendant of the USDA’s old “emergency” standard (which was used to set the original poverty line). The Department claims that the current version (report here) meets most dietary minimums, though it falls short on a few.

For your average well-fed American, living on a daily ratio of less than $5 for food prepared at home would be hard to imagine. But without SNAP benefits, 46 million people would be in a state of anguish rather than just scraping by.

19 Comments on “The boom in Food Stamps

  1. I am on food-stamps, work in non-profit hunger-relief advocacy in which food-stamp outreach plays a major role, but I have seen this average food-stamp figure thrown around a lot and there is something kind of annoying about it. In particular is the notion that this is all food-stamp recipients are using to pay for their food. In many cases may be true (such as mine, but me and my girlfriend get $340 a month for living at about 60% of the poverty-line), but we can’t get at that or say that about the average amount received.

    There is much to complain about the way the federal poverty level is calculated, and even the supplementary nature of the program, but it’s disingenuous to assume that just because one is on food-stamps that’s all one has for food. It kind of makes one look like a moron in the same way one rightly deserves to be called if they act surprised or disappointed with Obama as compared to his fabled campaign promises. It also comes out of a stereotypical view of poverty in America — you are either dirt poor or just A-OK — that is part-and-parcel with the stigma many people perceived about getting food-assistance that food-stamp outreach activists have worked long and hard to set straight.

  2. Actually, my food budget is below $5 a day.

    For breakfast I eat generic cornflakes with milk, cost about $1.80

    For dinner I eat rice with butter and salt and a raw carrot, and top it off with a glass of orange juice and a multivitamin pill to ward off vitamin deficiencies, cost about $1.50. Every third day I splurge and mix a $2 can of chicken in with the rice.

    I don’t eat lunch, which helps maintain my weight at a trim 155 lbs, not bad for a 5’10” man.

    So, on average, my daily food expenses are just under the $4.40 SNAP allotment–and that’s shopping in high-priced Manhattan grocery stores. (I wish I could get food stamps, but I’m too rich to qualify.) It’s kind of a monkish diet, but it keeps me healthy.

    Just saying, it can be done.

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  4. “Benefits are remarkably low. The average SNAP recipient gets $134 a month in assistance, which works out to $4.40 a day. That’s 10% less than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “thrifty” meal budget, and about half its “moderate” budget.”

    That is the kind of feet-on-the-ground, concrete context we expect from you, Doug. Thanks.

    The rise in the use of Food Stamps (Do I REALLY have to call them “SNAP”? No way, Man.) is shocking. Add to that the fact that, as you so trenchantly point out, by the Government’s own standards the distribution is not enough to keep a family healthy.

    But, remember Doug: Government just needs “to get out of the way.”

    You know — so more of our fellow-citizens can go hungry in the richest country in the history of the world (Still, and for now, anyway).

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  9. Will:

    I don’t know why you are on such a tight food budget. I am not asking, and I am not being disrespectful to you.

    However, while your diet certainly is keeping you alive — which is A VERY GOOD thing — over the long run it is not, as you claim, keeping you healthy.

    Again, without any snark at all, I refer you to this excellent publication by Harvard Medical School which looks at all the most recent science on nutrition and diet and puts it into plain English, and then into a form of plain English which you can use to plan a genuinely healthy diet:

    The Harvard publication does not address cost, but it addresses the most basic food needs and I believe it could be followed (although I have not had to try) at very low cost.

    It’s not about eating at Per Se.



  10. Gregory,

    I am on a tight food budget because I am poor, but not poor enough for food stamps.

    I am too poor to buy the Harvard nutrition guides you recommended. If you have read them, could you give us the gist? Do you think that following it would be more expensive than the SNAP allotment? I actually think my food budget could shrink even more if I substituted the animal products with beans for protein, but I hate beans. I could also mix up the carrots with other vegetables sometimes without raising my budget; I don’t do that because I’m no good at cooking.

    Could you summarize why you think my diet is unhealthy, given that it has adequate quantities of calories, animal proteins, vegetables and fruit, and of pills that give me the FDA recommended allowance of all vitamins and minerals–and given that I am healthy?

    I actually think that a diet that’s basically rice (or corn or flatbread) mixed with beans and vegetables and a dab of olive oil at every meal is about the healthiest you can eat. It’s also just about the cheapest you can eat, especially if you eat just two meals a day, which is great for avoiding obesity. And it’s also a very sustainable diet–easy on the biosphere. So a food budget that fits in under the SNAP allotment could end up being very good for your health and for the world at large.

    But Americans would find it kind of monotonous, and not much fun. On the other hand, I’m not sure that a diet that Americans would find sufficient and satisfying–three meals a day, heavy on meat and dairy and fried stuff–is necessarily the ideal we should be shooting for.

    Just saying.

  11. Doug,

    I know; I don’t want to eat the way I eat either. But what standard should we use to decide what’s an adequate diet? If it’s what American’s would rather eat, it’s going to be expensive and also pretty unhealthy with excessive calories and lots of meat, dairy and fries. If it’s a diet that’s really healthy and also sustainable for the environment–especially with 2-3 billion more mouths to feed by 2050–it will probably look more like my diet than like yours, and will come within hailing distance of SNAP.

    Just saying, the issue of how the left should regard the SNAP allottment is not as clear-cut as it might seem.

  12. Eat real food, not Conagra crap like rice, corn and soy. Can you afford two boiled eggs in the morning? Some sausages?

  13. @Rojo

    “Eat real food, not Conagra crap like rice, corn and soy. Can you afford two boiled eggs in the morning? Some sausages?”

    I’m afraid I can’t afford eggs and sausage, much as I would like to. Cheap, industrially-farmed grain is what I can afford, for the most part.

    And that’s probably a good thing. Eating meat, dairy, eggs and fish, no matter how organically and artisanally produced, is vastly more destructive to the environment, much less healthy, and much more expensive than eating factory-farmed grain and other plants. So two cheers for Conagra.

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  15. Will: eggs (on sale) are about a dime each; a couple each day would probably do you in good stead. They are not particularly environmentally harmful. The big culprit is RED MEAT, environmentally, and in terms of resources; it is also the most expensive, and problematic in terms of health. Fish, poultry, eggs, etc., are much less harmful environmentally, and also in terms of personal health. I note that your diet is very low in protein and fatty acids. The daily vitamin tablet is good, but does not compensate for low intakes of macro- (protein) and meso-nutrients (fatty acids). Beans and peas (cost = cheap) could be used instead of some of the rice, for a much better protein intake. My personal favorite is green peas, for: 1) taste 2) economy, and 3) fast cooking. A great protein bargain is no-fat cottage cheese, with 90 grams per 1.5-pound tub (for about $2 or $2.50). Butterfat is very expensive, which is why butter and cream and hard cheeses are expensive; the protein and carb components of milk are relatively cheap and much more nutritious. A tablespoon of ground flaxseed (cost = circa 5 cents), sprinkled on the cornflakes, would supply a blast of fatty acids, plus fiber and other protective goodies, though I grant that the mouth-feel might be less than pleasing. You could also do much better than cornflakes for breakfast. Oatmeal is a high-protein grain, and one of the healthiest for other reasons; also very cheap. I mix it with toasted buckwheat — another high-protein and tasty grain. With cinnamon, sweetener and milk, it makes a fine breakfast. Ground flax can be stirred-in, which makes it a tad gummy, but still acceptable.

    All FWIW.

    It is entirely possible to eat well on four bucks a day. Even two bucks can suffice — though this requires a lot of imagination and facility with spices, etc., to keep it from becoming too monotonous.

  16. Will wrote “what standard should we use to decide what’s an adequate diet? If it’s what American’s would rather eat, it’s going to be expensive and also pretty unhealthy with excessive calories and lots of meat, dairy and fries. If it’s a diet that’s really healthy and also sustainable for the environment–especially with 2-3 billion more mouths to feed by 2050–it will probably look more like my diet than like yours, and will come within hailing distance of SNAP.”

    Indeed! There is no possible way (at least no way that can be envisaged at this moment) to support, on this planet. 10 billion heavy eaters of red meat. It is obvious to anyone who has looked into this issue that heavy red meat consumption, across large populations, is incompatible with several crucial environmental and social goals, having to do with climate change, fossil fuel consumption, and personal and population health.

    The good news is that it is not necessary for everyone to become a vegetarian (much less vegan), or to restrict themselves too severely. There is plenty of productive capacity, and plenty of resources, to meet everyone’s protein and calorie and meso/micronutrient needs — even when our “everyone” bulks to 10+ billion — without environmental disaster. The key thing is to stop the wild excess and waste, namely red meat as a staple for large populations, plus the routine throwing-away of as much as 50% of all food. Added to that, a general trend toward the plant-based diet, with less reliance on all animal foods, as well as more emphasis on local sourcing (versus long-distance importation).

    I stress “red meat as a STAPLE”, in most contexts. Actually, a limited production of red meat is possible and desirable as a good use of what would otherwise be non-productive scrub land. The problem is not red meat as such (i.e. the vegetarian/vegan view), or as an integral aspect of pastoral life in some locales for small populations, or as a **condiment** (as it is used traditionally in East Asia). The problem is red meat imported in vast quantities to be used as a dietary staple (main dish, not a mere condiment) for billions of people. The latter is crazy and clearly unsustainable.

  17. Further:

    Our friend Will (above) has placed himself on a diet that — with the exception of the milk — is not unlike that of the bottom billion: largely grain (cheap starch), tiny bits of vegetables, and not much else. This diet supplies marginal amounts of protein, fatty acids, calories, and micronutrients (the latter, Will wisely compensates with a pill). Many hundreds of millions of people live on such diets, and as a result suffer from anemia, underweight, low energy, hypometabolism, poor resistance to infections, poor recovery from injury or stress, poor mental and physical development (in infancy and childhood), etc.

    When I wrote about 2-4 bucks per day being (potentially) adequate for food, I was writing from a first-world standpoint. Truth is, the bottom billion scrape by on a lot less than that — sometimes as little as ONE buck per day (total income! most of it spent on food). Four bucks per day for food would seem luxurious to the bottom two billion or so.

    We’re quite spoiled. But then we’re accustomed to being the beneficiaries of the global pillage that has been going on for centuries. With respect to food, this is sometimes referred to as “protein imperialism”: we get the nutrient-dense and easy-to-digest animal foods; they get the coarse and fibrous stuff more appropriate (as exclusive fare) for ruminants and gramnivores than for humans. We do NOT “suffer from anemia, underweight, low energy”, etc., to nearly the extent of our global victims, and better nutrition is a large part of it.

    Please note that the “better nutrition” just mentioned can and should be achieved with modest proportions of animal foods, not the crazy excesses that characterize conventional American fare. No need to adopt radical dietary ideologies like veganism. Rather, simply cut out the crazy excess: say, from 140 lbs of meat (beef, pork, poultry) per capita, down to 60, or perhaps 40. Plenty for good nutrition; plenty for varied and tasty meals; not enough to foster the diseases of excess; not enough to exceed environmental and resource limits.

    Is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that many Americans are now being forced to be a lot more frugal? I don’t know. Some of both. It should be happening a lot differently, for sure. It should be happening as the result of a grand global discussion, a big coming-clean, a dismantling of capitalism, an equitable re-apportionment resources and industrial outputs, so as to raise the lot of the bottom billions while abolishing the insane waste and profligate overconsumption of the top 1-2 billion.


    [ END of diet and social justice ranting, for the time being. :-) ]

  18. “… reapportionment OF resources and industrial outputs…”

    Damn system won’t let me correct my typos.

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