10 Jul 2013

Feeding America’s poor – why food stamps won’t go away

The USA may be one of the richest and most dynamic economies in the world, but one in six Americans receive help with their grocery bills in the form of food stamps, funded by the federal government.

Nearly 48 million people in the USA are now receiving the stamps. That remarkable fact is testimony to a number of profound changes in American society.

It shows the impact of the 2008 recession and how it has pushed many Americans closer to the financial edge.

Part of daily life

It means many Americans who would see themselves as part of the traditional hard-working middle class of their country now need help. And it has created a bizarre new timetable to American life in many towns and cities across the country.

Rhode Island – on the East coast of the USA – is the smallest state in the Union by land area. It is also one of the richer of the US states. But even here food stamps have become a part of daily life.

People now receive their stamps on a plastic golden card – but it doesn’t have quite the same status as its American Express rival.

Residents at a food bank in Rhode Island, US (Getty)

At the start of each month, money is loaded on – an average across the US of $274. You then use it like a debit card at shops, supermarkets and even farmers’ markets.

But there is evidence that for many the money doesn’t quite stretch to the end of the month. And when the 1st of the new month comes round, people can be found in supermarket car parks with heavily loaded trolleys as empty cupboards are restocked.

Back in 2000, just over 17 million people received food stamps.

That edged up during the decade to reach 26 million in 2007 – the year before the credit crunch hit hard and brought recession to the USA. After that, the numbers claiming stamps shot up – and has stayed up – standing at 47.7 million people in the spring of 2013.

Food stamp cuts

Now there are question marks over the future of food stamps.

The programme costs $78bn a year, and Republicans proposed last month that there should be $20bn of cuts to that total.

But efforts to cut food stamps have so far have foundered. Funding for the benefit is part of the US Department of Agriculture. This means it is caught up in the politically contentious issue of farm subsidies.

The argument of some Republicans is that the food stamp bill is just too big and money is now paid to people who were never intended to receive it.

Residents in Rhode Island queue at a food bank (G)

They also point to the injustice as they see it that some taxpayers might be giving money to food stamp recipients – who can then use it to buy food that perhaps those taxpayers themselves feel they can’t afford.

Poverty on mainstreet

But in Rhode Island they believe there’s a bigger problem – the money given for food stamps doesn’t even last the month.

The Community Food Bank hands out extra supplies for those who simply run out of cash before they receive the next payment. And the man who runs the Food Bank, Andrew Schiff, describes a more profound change:

“Poverty in America used to be isolated in urban settings or rural settings that most people didn’t see.

“Now it’s very public. So many people know someone who’s had a terrible time since 2008”.