WASHINGTON – Fueled by rising unemployment and food prices, the number of Americans on food stamps is poised to exceed 30 million for the first time this month, surpassing the historic high set in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.
The Department of Agriculture is set to release the new numbers as early as this week. Agency officials declined to confirm the figures but outlined them in a briefing last month for advocates and administrators of state food stamp programs.
The figures will put the spotlight on the hunger issue when Congress begins deliberations on a new economic stimulus package, said legislators and poverty advocates, predicting that any stimulus bill will include a boost in food stamp benefits. Advocates are also optimistic that president-elect Barack Obama, who made campaign promises to end childhood hunger and whose mother once briefly received food stamps, will make the issue a priority next year.
“We soon will have the most food stamps recipients in the history of our country,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a District-based anti-hunger policy organization. “If the economic forecasts come true, we’re likely to see the most hunger that we’ve seen since the 1981 recession and maybe since the 1960s, when these programs were established.”
Breaking the symbolically important 30 million mark comes on the heels of government data that showed that 11.9 million people went hungry in America at some point last year. That included nearly 700,000 children, up more than 50 percent from the year before.
Food pantries and other charitable organizations are also reporting an increase in demand from those in need.
Analysts attribute the jump primarily to rising unemployment, which hit 6.5 percent in October and is predicted to increase to 8 percent by the end of 2009, but rising food costs are also a factor. Although prices have fallen from the astronomic levels of last spring, they remain high. In the 12 months ending in September, the cost of food overall jumped 7.6 percent. Staples such as eggs and bread rose even faster.
For low-income families, who spend a higher percentage of their monthly budget on food, that rise has been particularly painful. Food stamp benefits are adjusted for inflation only once a year, and as of September the maximum benefit fell $64 a month short of the cost of the thriftiest, USDA-established diet for a family of four.
To qualify for food stamps program, whose name officially changed last month to the Simplified Nutrition Assistance Program, recipients must have an income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or less than $27,560 for a family of four. The benefits, which average about $4 per person per day, are based on a plan set by the government to represent a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet.