A guide to understanding food stamp headlines in 2012

Food stamps, officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have been in the news a lot lately. Here’s a quick guide on why you keep hearing about food stamps and why, after years of being politically innocuous, the program has become unexpectedly partisan.

More people are using federal food assistance than ever before. 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the governmental body in charge of administering food stamps, the number of recipients is at an all time high. In 2011, 44.7 million Americans received food assistance in the form of SNAP. That number has increased by 4.3 million people since 2010 and doubled since 2003. The money distributed in SNAP benefits increased even more than participant numbers, tripling since 2003. This is in part due to changes enacted by the 2009 stimulus package, including a 13.6 percent increase in benefits and extension of benefits beyond a three month limit.  2008 programatic changes for food stamps also contributed to the increased 2011 SNAP participation and benefit distribution.

More people are using food stamps because of difficult economic circumstances, defined by sustained unemployment rates and high food prices. Rising food stamp participation in a time of economic hardship may be seen as proof that the program is working as intended, that struggling families are reaching out and receiving assistance. Besides helping food insecure families and individuals directly, SNAP is also indirectly helping the economy. Moody’s Analytics found that each food stamp dollar actually generates $1.72 in economic activity.

So, other than to remark on yet another indication of economic hardship for Americans, why have food stamps been in the news lately? There are three primary reasons: Continue reading