Reuters reports there are now almost 46 million people in the United States on food stamps, roughly 15 percent of the population, an increase of 74 percent since 2007, "just before the financial crisis and a deep recession led to mass job losses."
The cost of the federal food stamp program, now dubbed the apparently more cuturally neutral sounding SNAP for "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program," has doubled since 2007 to reach $68 billion in 2010. That kind of rapid acceleration—with no end in sight—and high cost makes SNAP an attractive target for budget hawks.
But historically food stamp programs have never enrolled all the families that are technically eligible, so budget cutters might just want to count their blessings—that 46 million figure is probably an undercount of the true need out there. Nobody could argue that a program like SNAP could ever be completely fraud free, but the fact is with unemployment at a persistent high—real unemployment brushes close to 20 percent—and food costs heading higher, people are simply hungry and hurting out in the real economy. Even a lot of folks working full-time are not earning enough to feed their children. Forty percent of the people getting SNAP have jobs, they just don't pay much more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. That's not a lot of dough wherever you live, but for working poor in regions where the cost of living is high, it's especially penurious.
Though in political rhetoric, food stamps have been dismissed as an exercise in nanny statism and SNAP recipients caricatured as lazy and deceitful, let's not forget that the primary SNAP recipients are not "welfare queens" or miscellaneous social service scammers, but children.
Food stamps are the last hanging thread of the U.S. safety net for a lot of families, but let's remember that those families are not the only recipients of food stamps. Walmart reports that an increasing percentage of their shoppers are using food stamps to buy groceries, and it's likely so are many of their near minimum wage employees. That means that one of the most profitable corporations in the nation, a company that directs the lion share of its annual profit to just a handful of individuals in the Clan Walton family, is relying on a federal program to keep their workers fed and reporting for duty. Not to pick on Walmart, the same could be said for Target, K-mart or any other large retailer or corporation that maintains a large force of deliberately part-timed and low-wage workers. The decline of unions in the private sector—now just 6.9 percent—has weakened a force for wage increases that might keep up with rising food prices and the middle class aspirations of working poor people. So don't just see red when you see the unemployed and low-wage workers using food stamps at your supermarket or grocery, see who the true beneficiaries of that government subsidy are.