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The number of Americans receiving food stamp assistance soared above 36 million for the first time in August, the eighth month in a row that enrollment set a record, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Wednesday.

USDA said 36.492 million people were receiving food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In July, enrollment stood at 35.851 million. At the current rate, an estimated one in eight Americans receive benefits.


In the latest data, the average person received $132.99 in August, compared with $101.31 in August 2008.

The program, which has its origins in a four-year program begun in 1939, was made permanent nationwide in 1964. In the past 10 months, enrollment has risen by 4.707 million, with 2 million people initiating their participation from May to August, which is the latest month for which there are data. This surge is attributed to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

But food stamps as a modest life raft for those in poverty and/or without work are not just factor of the Great Recession.

Mark Rank of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis recently completed a long-term study of children in families that receive Food Stamps. The results: Nearly half of all U.S. children will live in a household that uses Food Stamps at some point before they are 20. Rank said, "Food stamp use is a clear sign of poverty and food insecurity, two of the most detrimental economic conditions affecting a child's health."

Rank's study, "Estimating the Risk of Food Stamp Use and Impoverishment During Childhood," is published in the current issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Other study findings include:

● 90 percent of black children will be in a household that uses food stamps. This compares to 37 percent of white children.

● Nearly one-quarter of all American children will be in households that use food stamps for five or more years during childhood.
● 91 percent of children with single parents will be in a household receiving food stamps, compared to 37 percent of children in married households.

● Looking at race, marital status and education simultaneously, children who are black and whose head of household is not married with less than 12 years of education have a cumulative percentage of residing in a food stamp household of 97 percent by age 10.

"Understanding the degree to which American children are exposed to the risks of poverty and food insecurity across childhood is essential information for the health care and social service communities," Rank says. "Even limited exposure to poverty can have detrimental effects upon a child's overall quality of health and well-being.

Thank the Democrats who, both in 1939, and under John Kennedy in 1961, were willing to take the heat from recalcitrant Republicans and push the food stamp program into being. Because, tough as the situation can be for adults - and especially children - in poverty, it could also be much worse. Before food stamps, it was much worse for millions, as I wrote here:

I was 6 years old and sitting next to my grandmother at the table where as many as 14 of our extended family members ate our evening meals. I quickly finished my small plate of rice and beans, and said, "But, grandma, I’m still hungry." Everyone went silent. My grandma, Simmalikee, smiled at me, took her plate and scraped off the several spoonfuls she had not yet eaten onto mine. No, I thought. Not your food, grandma. Some other food. I sobbed as she coaxed me to eat each bite. No matter how empty my belly felt, I never again said I was still hungry after a meal.

That was a very long time ago. In those days, as it was for many impoverished Americans, government surplus food arrived at our house in boxes each month. Some canned goods, wheels of orange cheese, rice, beans and, occasionally, some chocolate. At the end of each month, as the surplus dwindled, our portions got smaller. Things have vastly improved, and the food stamp program has contributed to that improvement. But people still go hungry in America. And very many of them are children. Not the least of this comes about because food stamps just aren't enough, especially in hard times. Even soup kitchens are feeling the effects.

In Detroit, for instance:

Try telling Brother Jerry Smith that the recession in America has ended. As scores of people queued up last week at the soup kitchen which the Capuchin friar helps run in Detroit, the celebrations on Wall Street in New York seemed from another world. ...

"Some in the past have had jobs here, but now there is nothing available to people. Nothing at all," Brother Jerry said as he sat behind a desk with a computer but dressed in the simple brown friar's robes of his order.

Outside his office the hungry, the homeless and the poor crowded around tables. Many were by themselves, but some were families with young children. None had jobs. Indeed, the soup kitchen itself is now starting to dip into its savings to cope with a drying up of desperately needed donations. This is an area where times are so tough that the soup kitchen is a major employer for the neighbourhood, keeping its own staff out of poverty. But now Brother Jerry fears he may also have to start laying people off.


Professor Robin Boyle, an urban planning expert at Detroit's Wayne State University, believes the real impact of the recession will continue to be felt in those suburbs for years to come. For decades they stood as a bulwark against the poverty of the city, ringing it like a doughnut of prosperity, with decrepit inner Detroit as the hole at its centre.

Now home losses and job cuts are hitting the middle classes hard. "Recovery is going to take a generation," he said. "The doughnut itself is sick now. But what do you think that means for the poor people who live in the hole?"

That picture is borne out by the recent actions of Gleaners Community Food Bank. The venerable Detroit institution has long sent out parcels of food, clothing and furniture all over the city. But now it is doing so to the suburbs as well, sometimes to people who only a year or so ago had been donors to the charity but now face food shortage themselves.

Gleaners has delivered a staggering 14,000 tonnes of food in the past 12 months alone.

The weekend of Nov. 21-22, 10 Kossacks will write Feeding America diaries to bring attention to the problem of hunger in our country and to raise money for ameliorating the situation. This is important work, and I urge everyone to participate. But it is no substitute for better policies in the fight against hunger and, of course, its fundamental cause - poverty.

It's been said for decades, but it remains true and so must be repeated: In the richest country in the world - yes, despite everything, America still holds that rank - no excuse justifies the shabby state of our social safety net. Europe does a better job. Japan does better. Poked and prodded by its own left wingers - and Americans more left than they - the modern Democratic Party sporadically has led the fight against poverty for seven decades.

But "sporadically" is the operative word. These days the desires of the oligarchs are met whenever they snap their fingers or whisper in a nearby ear. The poor are not voiceless, but they could sure could benefit from the megaphone of more people with the clout to make things happen for them. How about it? Congressmen? Senators? Mr. President?

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Sat Nov 07, 2009 at 04:16 PM PST.

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