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Desperation Trumps Stigma: What's Really Driving the Food Stamp-ede

The number of food stamp recipients is likely to hit a new high of 46 million when the Department of Agriculture releases its latest report on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) -- that's over 18 percent of American households. This should drive conservatives through the roof. Fox News and other right-wing pundits have already been bemoaning surging food stamp enrollment, claiming food stamps are "teaching people to be dependent." You can expect those moans to grow louder. But they, like many other commentators are missing the point. Growing dependency is not the issue here. It's growing desperation -- desperation great enough to overcome the deep reluctance among many Americans about using stigmitized safety net programs.

Everyone’s food stamp narrative concentrates on unemployment as the cause of the increase in SNAP enrollment. In 2007, before the housing and financial crises unleashed almost double-digit unemployment, 11.8 million households relied on food stamps. As of May 2011, 21.6 million households pay the grocery bill with food stamps. More unemployment, greater eligibility, more food stamp use.

This is indeed too simple a story. SNAP is a means tested program, meaning eligibility is determined based upon income. The threshold for 4-person families is a gross income of $28,668, or 130 percent of the poverty line. In 2007, roughly 30 percent of American households were eligible for food stamps. That is equal to over 33 million families. In 2009, when unemployment reached a high of 9.9 percent, roughly 33 million families were eligible (calculated using the Census Bureau's Household Income distribution). The same number as two years earlier!

Unemployment has had no significant impact on SNAP eligibility. Most of the same people eligible today for food stamps were eligible in 2007. Yet back in 2007 only about a third of eligible eligible households made use of these benefits. Now about two-thirds do. The question is, who are these families? And why have they waited so long to claim a benefit for which they have long been eligible?

These families, while low income, are independent and don’t want to be associated with welfare. One of the untold stories of welfare reform is that its success was in large part due to the stigmatization of the safety net. Rather than seeing the net as something that saved families from deprivation, even America’s neediest began to see the net as an unnecessary cradle. AFDC, TANF, food stamps, all of it signaled laziness, dependency, and vice.

Even 15 years after welfare reform and the end to public ruminations about welfare queens, poor and low-income families are still haunted by this stigma. That partially explains why, in the wake of the Great Recession, the number of TANF beneficiaries has not grown exponentially (there is also the fact that many states discourage enrollment, but that is another story).

Fortunately, the specter of welfare reform isn’t spooking the way it used to. The needy are coming out of hiding and taking advantage of SNAP. One recent food stamp enrollee justified herself and her friends who are now enrolled in SNAP: "Food is not welfare. I have to eat to be productive." Many poor and low income Americans feel the same way -- and good for them.

Still it's ridiculous that poor and low income Americans feel the need to justify themselves. They've seen their wages cut or erased all together. The few dollars they do have don't go nearly as far as they used to. The past few months have seen some of the biggest spikes in food prices in decades. Add this to rising energy and gasoline prices over the past year and you’ve got a serious problem for working families with stagnating and declining wages.

Historically, one common explanation for low food stamp participation rates is that many households only qualify for very modest monthy benefits -- which can be under $25 a month -- and don't think it's worth the stigma or hassle to apply. In hard times, though, every dollar counts.

And so many have turned to food stamps. After years of swearing off government assistance, manifesting all the characteristics of sturdy self-reliance that the right-wing prizes, these families have finally fallen on times too hard to ignore. Yet, rather than praise them for their courage, conservatives are treating food stamp use as an irredeemable vice, all while they support tax breaks for the wealthy. Guess only low income families need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.