November 19, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Food stamps go untapped by eligible Americans


Accepting help can be difficult. You might have to swallow some pride.

But people need to eat, and government aid is going unused. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 60 percent of eligible American families apply for food stamps. This is considered good news, because the national rate was 50 percent in 2004. Back then, only 38.7 percent of eligible Idaho households applied. In Washington state, it was 50 percent.

The surge in applications is no doubt caused by the recession and the rise in unemployment. Washington’s rise in food stamp applications since August 2008 is the second highest in the nation. Idaho’s increase is the fourth highest. But there is still a lot of untapped aid.

There can be a stigma attached to government aid, and the urge for independence is commendable. But those rationales won’t end a child’s hunger pangs.

In recent years, several states have broadened eligibility requirements, so many people may not be aware that they qualify for food stamps. Actually the term “stamps” is outdated, because debit-style cards are now swiped at cash registers. The average food aid recipient in June received $133. Poorer families can get more.

You don’t have to be out of work or destitute to get help feeding your family. In Washington, the general income thresholds for eligibility, according to the Department of Social and Health Services’ Web site, are: a monthly gross income (before taxes and deductions) of $1,805 for one person; $2,429 for two people; $3,052 for three; and $3,675 for four.

In other words, a high percentage of working families qualify for Basic Food, which is what the state calls its program. The Web site has the details on eligibility and applications for Washington residents. Idahoans can go to

Though hunger has been spotlighted during the recession, widespread childhood poverty has achieved a distressing level of permanence. A study of 29 years of data by the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine has found that half of all children will benefit from food stamps at some point in their lives. And that figure is conservative because of all the eligible households that don’t apply.

In 2008, about 49 million Americans (17 million of them children) lacked a consistent supply of food. About 43 percent of children in Spokane County qualify for free or reduced lunch at school.

The scope of childhood poverty is stunning and has lifelong consequences, but society is not indifferent. There is help. Just ask.

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