New census data show that Americans' real household income declined in 2011 for the second year in a row, and 46 million people, more than ever before, are on food stamps. That's almost 15 percent, almost one in seven. In the District of Columbia, nearly 23 percent of residents are on food stamps.
Coupled with an unending stream of poor economic data from unemployment to economic growth, it's not surprising that more people are on food stamps. But some of the increase can be explained by another factor: evolving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rules that expand eligibility and increase benefits to ever more Americans.
At the beginning of the Great Recession, in December 2007, 27 million Americans, fewer than one in 10, received SNAP benefits, aka food stamps. At the end of the recession, in June 2009, 11 percent of the population was using SNAP.
Food stamp participation has always increased during recessions and in initial stages of recoveries, but this increase is far higher than in prior recoveries.
It's not just that more people today are on food stamps, but the real value of the benefit has gone up, from $245 per household per month in 1990 to $287 in 2010. And the average number of people per household receiving food stamps declined, from 2.6 people to 2.2 people.
Greater food stamp usage is partly the result of changes in eligibility. The 1996 welfare legislation eliminated food stamp eligibility of legal immigrants, placed a three-month limit on Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents working fewer than 20 hours a week over a 36-month period, reduced maximum allotments, froze standard deductions and minimum benefits, and revised provisions for disqualification.
The pendulum swung back in May 2002, when the food stamp program was changed under the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act. It restored eligibility of legal immigrants, indexed the standard deduction to inflation, incentivized state administration outcomes with performance bonuses, simplified eligibility processes for states by aligning them with other means-tested programs, and cut employment and training funds.
The increase in participation in 2008 was caused by a combination of widened benefit eligibility, the recession and a concerted effort to expand access to benefits. The 2008 Farm Bill changed the name of the program from the Food Stamp Program to SNAP in an effort to reduce the social stigma associated with receiving benefits.
As of Oct. 1, 2008, the minimum benefit and standard deduction for households were increased. The cap for child care expenses was also eliminated.
The expansion of the program had a predictable effect: Use of the program rose. Data from June 2012 show that while nationwide participation was almost 15 percent, state participation rates vary from 6 percent to 22 percent, with D.C. at the upper end. The wide variation can be explained by differences in state economies and variation in the eligibility rules adopted by individual states.
Perhaps most troubling is that expansion of SNAP means that even when our economy returns to full activity and much lower unemployment, food stamp benefits will not decline commensurately. Food stamps have become more of a permanent entitlement rather than a temporary stopgap for the temporarily unemployed.
We all want to help those truly in need -- in order to empower them to help themselves succeed -- but we defeat the purpose if we create perverse incentives for people to depend on public assistance for long-term sustenance.