The Recession Has Gone, But Hardship Remains

Aug 04, 2011

By Abigail Newcomer

On Tuesday, the Department of Agriculture revealed that a record 45.75 million people–about 15 percent of the population–received food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) in May 2011.

It's ironic that this data, which reveals widespread hardship, came out just one day after lawmakers passed the Budget Control Act, a measure that will cap spending on domestic, discretionary programs, many of which equip people with tools they need to move out of poverty. While SNAP may not be subject to these caps, many predict the hardship that leads more individuals and families to qualify for food stamps will only rise as the United States continues to face a slow recovery. In fact, it may persist long term if we fail to invest in our nation's families.

The high participation rate for May represents a 12 percent increase over the last 12 months and demonstrates that, although the great recession officially ended more than two years ago, the struggle continues for millions of families. Some states' numbers are particularly stark. In Alabama, for example, more than one-third of residents (36 percent) received food stamps in May.

SNAP remains among the federal assistance programs most responsive to spikes in poverty and unemployment. One of the reasons SNAP is able to respond to economic hardship is that everyone who qualifies for it can receive assistance.

During a time when "government" has become a dirty word and the phrase "deficit reduction" has become the magic one, it will be important to remain vigilant in protecting programs designed to kick in for families that are struggling, many of them for the first time, as wages or hours fall or work disappears completely. We must also improve programs that provide vital support to some, but could help many more. The TANF program, for example, has not responded as well to the recession. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis found that TANF use increased by 13 percent during the recession, from December 2007 to December 2009, while SNAP use increased by 45 percent.

As the downturn continues to hit hard-working families across the country, SNAP remains an essential lifeline for children and families, and it's good for business and good for the economy. All these reasons make it essential that the government continue to adequately fund the program. At the same time, SNAP is only one program, and we must think in terms of families and focus broadly on what it will take to help more families fully participate in the economy and achieve economic security.

We can be certain that the answer will include putting enough food on the table, but it will also include access to a strong education, skills training opportunities, and high quality healthcare and childcare so that parents can work in good jobs that pay family sustaining wages. In the long term, it investments in families that will put them on firm footing. And what is good for families is good for our nation and our economy. 

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