Almost 15% of the U.S. population relied on food stamps in August, with 45.8 million Americans receiving aid from the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Food stamp rolls have risen 8.1% in the past year, according to the Department of Agriculture, and may continue to rise in coming months as Americans continue to face high unemployment, and September’s data is likely to include higher numbers linked to natural disasters.
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Mississippi had the largest share of its population relying on food stamps, with more than 21% SNAP beneficiaries in August. In New Mexico, Tennessee, Oregon, and Louisiana, one in five residents received food stamps.
The number of Americans using food stamps has been climbing since late 2007, with families continuing to tap into food assistance despite the official end of the recession in 2009 as unemployment remained high and salaries declined. States have made it easier for residents to tap into their food stamp programs by waiving requirements that limited the value of assets food stamp recipients could own.
However, now the food stamp program is facing the congressional chopping block as lawmakers aim to trim the federal budget deficit. With food costs forecast to increase this year by anywhere between 3.5% and 4.5%, nearly double the core inflation rate, lawmakers are considering changes to the food stamp program that will save them money rather than cost them more. Regulators are combating the issue from a different angle, targeting speculation in the commodities markets in order to keep down prices.
The annual budget for SNAP has doubled since 2007 to $70 billion. Though unsuccessfully, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) proposed an amendment last month that would have tightened eligibility requirements, saying that the growth of the program over the last decade has led to fraud and misuse.
“Responsible changes to the way the government operates this program will improve outcomes, help more people achieve the goal of financial independence and put an end to fraud,” he said Monday on the Senate floor. “It is time to get serious. Denial must end. You can’t borrow your way out of debt. We are spending money we don’t have.”
Sessions supports a House Republican plan to commit $71 billion to food stamps next year, compared with the $80 billion Senate Democrats want to devote to the program.
However, some argue that food stamps add value to the economy. “This is clearly a moral issue,” said Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). “But it’s also an economic issue. For every dollar in food stamp costs, you get $1.79 back.”
Money spent through the food stamp program benefits grocers, “the truck driver who delivered the food, the warehouses that stored it, the plant that processed it and the farmer who produced the food,” said Audrey Rowe, administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service, to a congressional committee in July.