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Food Stamps Helping Keep Hunger in Check Despite Recession

Yesterday’s Agriculture Department report finds that the share of U.S. households that lacked access to adequate food at some point in the year remained roughly unchanged in 2009, despite sharp increases in unemployment and poverty.

In 2008, as the recession took hold, the “food insecurity” rate jumped from 11 percent to almost 15 percent, and in 2009 it remained at the highest level since USDA began collecting these data in the mid-1990s.  Still, the fact that food insecurity didn’t worsen further in 2009 partly reflects the effectiveness of the federal safety net — and the investments through the 2009 Recovery Act — in responding to increased need.

In particular, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) has stepped in to help more families afford adequate food during hard economic times, as it is designed to do.

According to yesterday’s release, some 17.4 million households (about one household in seven), containing more than 50 million people, lacked access to adequate food at some point in 2009 because they didn’t have enough money for groceries.  About 6.8 million of those households reported having to skip meals or take other steps to reduce their food intake because of lack of resources.  Yet the food insecurity rate was essentially unchanged from 2008, even though the unemployment rate rose from 5.8 percent to 9.3 percent in 2009 and the poverty rate rose from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent.

A slight fall in food prices in 2009 contributed modestly to keeping food insecurity in check for the year.  But the federal food assistance safety net — SNAP in particular — likely deserves most of the credit:

  • The number of households receiving SNAP benefits grew by 25 percent over the course of 2009, from 14 million to 18 million.  Some of the largest caseload increases occurred in states with the largest increases in unemployment.  Because SNAP is available to almost any family whose net income is at or below the poverty line, it responds quickly to support families and communities hit hard by economic downturns:  enrollment expands automatically when the economy weakens and contracts when the economy recovers.
  • The Recovery Act increased the maximum SNAP benefit by 13.6 percent beginning in April 2009, providing an additional $20 to $24 per person per month to help families buy groceries.  In total, the Recovery Act increased food stamp benefits by about $7 billion in 2009.

So, while it’s deeply troubling that one in every seven households had trouble affording food last year, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that government policies have pushed back effectively against rising hardship during the recession.