USA 2008: The Great
Food stamps are the symbol of poverty in
the US. In the era of the credit crunch, a record 28 million Americans are now
relying on them to survive – a sure sign the world's formerly richest country
faces economic crisis
By David Usborne in New York
Tuesday, 1 April 2008
We knew things were bad on Wall Street, but
on Main Street it may be worse. Startling official statistics show that as a
new economic recession stalks the United States, a record number of Americans
will shortly be depending on food stamps just to feed themselves and their
Dismal projections by the Congressional
Budget Office in Washington suggest that in the fiscal year starting in
October, 28 million people in the US will be using government food stamps to
buy essential groceries, the highest level since the food assistance programme
was introduced in the 1960s.
The increase – from 26.5 million in 2007 –
is due partly to recent efforts to increase public awareness of the programme
and also a switch from paper coupons to electronic debit cards. But above all
it is the pressures being exerted on ordinary Americans by an economy that is
suddenly beset by troubles. Housing foreclosures, accelerating jobs losses and
fast-rising prices all add to the squeeze.
Emblematic of the downturn until now has
been the parades of houses seized in foreclosure all across the country, and
myriad families separated from their homes. But now the crisis is starting to
hit the country in its gut. Getting food on the table is a challenge many
Americans are finding harder to meet. As a barometer of the country's economic
health, food stamp usage may not be perfect, but can certainly tell a story.
Michigan has been in its own mini-recession
for years as its collapsing industrial base, particularly in the car industry,
has cast more and more out of work. Now, one in eight residents of the state is
on food stamps, double the level in 2000. "We have seen a dramatic
increase in recent years, but we have also seen it climbing more in recent
months," Maureen Sorbet, a spokeswoman for Michigan's programme, said.
"It's been increasing steadily. Without the programme, some families and
kids would be going without."
But the trend is not restricted to the
rust-belt regions. Forty states are reporting increases in applications for the
stamps, actually electronic cards that are filled automatically once a month by
the government and are swiped by shoppers at the till, in the 12 months from
December 2006. At least six states, including Florida, Arizona and Maryland,
have had a 10 per cent increase in the past year.
In Rhode Island, the segment of the
population on food stamps has risen by 18 per cent in two years. The food
programme started 40 years ago when hunger was still a daily fact of life for
many Americans. The recent switch from paper coupons to the plastic card system
has helped remove some of the stigma associated with the food stamp programme.
The card can be swiped as easily as a bank debit card. To qualify for the
cards, Americans do not have to be exactly on the breadline. The programme is
available to people whose earnings are just above the official poverty line.
For Hubert Liepnieks, the card is a lifeline he could never afford to lose.
Just out of prison, he sleeps in overnight shelters in Manhattan and uses the
card at a Morgan Williams supermarket on East 23rd Street. Yesterday, he and
his fiancée, Christine Schultz, who is in a wheelchair, shared one banana and a
cup of coffee bought with the 82 cents left on it.
"They should be refilling it in the
next three or four days," Liepnieks says. At times, he admits, he and
friends bargain with owners of the smaller grocery shops to trade the value of
their cards for cash, although it is illegal. "It can be done. I get $7
back on $10."
Richard Enright, the manager at this Morgan
Williams, says the numbers of customers on food stamps has been steady but he
expects that to rise soon. "In this location, it's still mostly old people
and people who have retired from city jobs on stamps," he says. Food stamp
money was designed to supplement what people could buy rather than covering all
the costs of a family's groceries. But the problem now, Mr Enright says, is
that soaring prices are squeezing the value of the benefits.
"Last St Patrick's Day, we were
selling Irish soda bread for $1.99. This year it was $2.99. Prices are just
spiralling up, because of the cost of gas trucking the food into the city and
because of commodity prices. People complain, but I tell them it's not my fault
everything is more expensive."
The US Department of Agriculture says the
cost of feeding a low-income family of four has risen 6 per cent in 12 months.
"The amount of food stamps per household hasn't gone up with the food
costs," says Dayna Ballantyne, who runs a food bank in Des Moines, Iowa.
"Our clients are finding they aren't able to purchase food like they used
And the next monthly job numbers, to be
released this Friday, are likely to show 50,000 more jobs were lost nationwide
in March, and the unemployment rate is up to perhaps 5 per cent.