Working-age people now comprise the majority of American households that rely on food stamps. Just a few years ago, children and senior citizens were the main beneficiaries of the subsidy.
Economists say a part of the change is the trend toward couples having fewer children. They also point out that an anemic economic recovery coupled with high unemployment, flat wages and a growing chasm between low-wage and high-skill jobs play a part. With the growing divide between income levels, the working poor continue to struggle.
Since 1980, food stamp participation has grown most rapidly among those with some college training. Economists say this is a sign that the safety net of food stamps has been expanded to cover the shrinking middle class in America. A recent study at the University of Kentucky, goes on to say that the subsidy now helps protect 1 in 7 US citizens.
President Barack Obama’s address Tuesday night to the nation is expected to look in part on planned goals to reduce income inequality. One item, continually addressed in the Obama administration, is the raising of the minimum wage. Congress, under the leadership of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, wants a $4 billion annual reduction to anti-poverty programs including food stamps.
The study also suggests that just having a job might no longer be sufficient for self-sustainability in today’s economy. Low-wage jobs are being supplemented with food stamps becoming more prevalent for the working poor. Much of the US job growth is being created in low or minimum-wage sectors such as fast food or retail.
As the number of working poor on food stamps grows larger, many people find themselves on shaky ground regardless of education. Among the newer food stamp recipients are high school graduates who enrolled in college hoping to further their education. As education costs rose, more people started to drop out from advanced studies and now find themselves often working six days a week for $10 an hour.
Beginning in 2009, more than 50% of US households which received food stamps have been adults between 18 and 59. As recently as 1998, the working-poor comprised just 44 percent. The dot-com bust and followup recessions in 2001 and 2007 pushed new recipients into the federal program. Twenty-eight percent of households receiving food stamps are headed by at least one person with some college training. Seven percent are headed by people with four-year college degrees while high school graduates are the largest segment at 37 percent.
As automation, globalization and outsourcing have polarized the job market, many good-paying jobs have disappeared. Jobs such as manufacturing have shrunk the US middle class and are moving people with college-level education into low-wage work.
The first food stamp program in America was inaugurated on May 16, 1939. The Secretary of Agriculture at the time, Henry Wallace is most often credited with creating the program. The first administrator of the program, Milo Perkins, described the program in an interview with The Washington Star. He envisioned America as having farm surpluses on one side of a canyon and under-nourished people with outstretched hands on the other. The food stamp program was a means to build a bridge across that canyon.
By Jerry Nelson