Food Stamp Distribution Rushing to Keep Pace with Rising Poverty Levels

By Guest Columnist Nov 10, 2009

By Juell Stewart As America faces the fastest-growing poverty levels since the Great Depression, Democracy Now! reports that the number of families receiving food stamp assistance are on the rise:

[N]early half of all US children and 90 percent of black youngsters will be on food stamps at some point during childhood. […] In 2008, over 28 million Americans received food stamps in an average month. About half of the recipients were under the age of sixteen.

It’s certainly troubling that so many people are struggling to buy food, and racial disparities along levels of poverty are rising as a result of the recession. At first glance, this seems to be indicative of all of the problems endemic to America in 2009: The dismal state of the economy and the national dearth of employment are coming together to create a perfect storm of need amongst an increasing number of families–especially families of color. The fact that there are so many children in dire need of food stamp benefits seems problematic, but let’s look at it another way: at least the most of basic needs are being met, which is more than can be said for other aspects of the American social safety net, particularly cash assistance. Still, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 increased federal funding for food stamp benefits by 13.6%. Not only did ARRA stimulus provide increased assistance for people already receiving aid, but it also will provide funding to encourage more families to apply for the program. Elsewhere though, social parachutes continue to fail to support the families who are most affected by the economic collapse. As unemployment and poverty levels continue to rise in numbers that rival the Great Depression, the effects of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 that famously promised to "end welfare as we know it" are echoing throughout the country. When jobs are disappearing at record rates, an economic support system that is contingent on employment actually works against the low-income individuals it’s designed to help. So while it’s great that families are getting enough support from state and federal sources to meet basic nutritional needs, the reality is that without better access to cash assistance, millions of Americans below the poverty line are slipping through the cracks. The additional funding from the ARRA acknowledges the crucial necessity of ensuring access to food, yet fails to supplement the program with the cash assistance that is so desperately needed to guarantee that families in poverty maintain a decent standard of living. In order to fully provide relief for these families, Congress needs to adapt the welfare program to address a reality where jobs are increasingly difficult to come by and face the reality that food stamps simply are not enough. Juell Stewart is a Research Intern with the Applied Research Center.