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By Tim Henderson, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — Luxuries were affordable for Linda Fish before she lost her job in retail management in 2009.

“I won’t lie. The dinners out, the perfect martinis, the salon visits with a master stylist, and the rooms at nice hotels when I was too lazy or tired to do the long commute home — these things I could afford and they made me very, very happy,” the Chicago resident wrote on her blog soon after she became unemployed.

But in the years after she lost her job, Fish “learned to stop worrying and love minimum wage.” She gained a new appreciation for beans, pasta, and oatmeal when she took a $9 per hour job as a bookstore clerk. It was a shock, Fish said, to go downscale “in a culture where we have been systematically weaned from living with family, cooking our own food, sewing our own clothes, walking,” she told Stateline.

Fish had a job, but she was what economists call “underemployed.” The plight of people like her might explain a puzzling discrepancy between the declining unemployment rate and the rising rate of food stamp usage.

The overall U.S. unemployment rate has steadily declined since the recession officially ended in June 2009. But many Americans still are finding it hard to get by, even if they do have jobs. A key indicator of economic hardship — enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps — is higher in every state than it was five years ago, even though unemployment has dropped in every state during the same period.

Economists say the official unemployment rate underestimates economic pain, since it doesn’t include people who have stopped looking for work or who are barely getting by with part-time or low-paying jobs. The official U.S. unemployment rate is 6.3 percent. But an alternative federal measure that includes people who want to work but are too discouraged to keep looking, and those working part-time though they would prefer to work full time, is 12.6 percent.

Fish never had to resort to food stamps, but enrollment in the program is another way to capture the “underemployment” of people like her, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), which advocates to reduce hunger in the United States. “SNAP is an important lifeline for many people struggling with unemployment and underemployment,” the center said in explaining its emphasis on the expanded unemployment numbers.

South Carolina, for example, has an official unemployment rate of 5.3 percent, down from 11.4 percent in the depths of the recession. No other state has had a steeper decline. But the state has an underemployment rate of 11.9 percent.

States with the highest underemployment rates are California, Nevada, and Arizona, where the expanded rate is 16 percent. The lowest rates are in North Dakota (5.5 percent), Nebraska (7.3 percent), and Wyoming (7.9 percent).

There are now five states, along with the District of Columbia, where at least one in five people are on food stamps — Mississippi, Oregon, New Mexico, Tennessee, and West Virginia. In 2009, there were none in that category, according to a Stateline analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. The highest usage rate at that time was 17 percent in the District of Columbia.

Generally, food stamps are available to people making up to 130 percent of the poverty level, currently $2,552 a month for a family of four, and provide up to $189 a month per person. The benefit money is issued on a debit-style card, unlike the original stamps and coupons that were used when the program first began.

Nationwide, food stamp usage has started to drop slightly from the 2012 historic high of about 48 million people. It is currently down to about 46 million, in part because some states have reinstated work requirements. But total enrollment remains nearly triple the 17 million food stamp users in 2000. In 2009 nearly 39 million people were on food stamps, and the number rose to 44 million in 2010.

Yet in every state, unemployment is down from 2009 levels, ranging from South Carolina’s dramatic drop to New Mexico’s mild improvement from 6.9 percent to 6.3 percent.

Much of the discrepancy between improving employment news and continued economic suffering, as measured by food stamp use, is due to people who may be employed but making far less than they were before the recession. While Fish, the former retail manager, lost her job in middle age, underemployment is particularly rampant among young college graduates. A New York Fed study this year found that underemployment for college graduates has been steadily climbing since 2001 and the quality of their temporary jobs has steadily dropped.

Since food stamps are federally funded but administered by states, participation also can reflect how successful a state has been at signing up those who are eligible, including jobless workers.

“If you look at areas that were especially impacted by the recession, you’ll see some have really aggressively pushed to boost participation,” said Jennifer Adach, a spokeswoman for FRAC.

The USDA measures food stamp participation compared to the number who are potentially needy, using unemployment, poverty, and near-poverty as factors, to show which states could benefit from more outreach. According to its most recent report in 2012, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Vermont signed up the highest percentage of potential beneficiaries, while Wyoming, California, and Utah reached the lowest proportion of the needy.

AFP Photo/Scott Olson

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Reprinted with permission from DailyKos

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