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Food Stamp Use Shows Continued ‘Underemployment’ Pain

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Food Stamp Use Shows Continued ‘Underemployment’ Pain


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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  1. Independent1 August 18, 2014

    “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.

    By in large, the areas, or counties, that have aggressively pushed to boost participation have been in GOP-run states/counties or right-leaning counties in blue states, that during the recession cut budgets and government services that assisted the needy, in order to “balance their budgets” on the backs of American taxpayers outside of their particular county or state. A survey was done in early 2013 of the counties in America that utilize food stamps and welfare the most, and of the 456 counties in America found to utilize the most welfare and food stamps, it was because the governments of those counties assisted their residents in filling out the federal forms for food stamps and welfare. Of those 456 counties, more than 90%, 421 of them voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

    Overall, more than 75% of food stamps were going to GOP-run states in early 2013, mainly states which have implemented “right to work” laws where employers can get away easily with paying their employees below a “living wage”; and states which together also cut funding for programs that were assisting the needy. So the large increase in the utilization of food stamps since the beginning of the Great Recession has been an intended result of deliberate GOP actions to balance their budgets by foisting a large portion of their social needs funding onto the federal government instead of raising the taxes of the more affluent in their states who could well have afforded to pay a larger share of the increase in tax burden resulting from a recession.

    The Great Recession was the 1st recession in recent history where many states did nothing to mitigate the affects of a recession; it was the 1st recession where states, especially red states, cut funding to programs which legislators knew would result in state employees losing jobs. By cutting state workers, red states dampened the demand for goods and services across their states, which resulted in many small businesses having close which created even more unemployment in their states and further increased the demand for food stamps and welfare. This is one reason that in 2013, 12 of the 15 states that sucked the most welfare dollars from the federal government in relation to the taxes they sent to Washington were red states. There were only 17 states which received less tax dollars back than they sent to Washington and 14 of those states were blue states, many of which received 60-70 cents back in federal tax dollars for each tax dollar they had sent to Washington. Virtually all 3 red states got back between 95 and 99 cents/dollar of taxes they had sent to Washington. In essence it’s these 14 blue states that have been funding the nation during the Great Recession.

    1. kenndeb August 20, 2014

      So many words, yet so little reality. And you have the gall to constantly call me a liar? These are government propaganda figures. And we all know how much this regime can be trusted. Oh, I forgot you are one of the good communist minions that always believes whatever the regimes tells you to believe. Sorry.

      1. Independent1 August 20, 2014

        You are without question the biggest moron on the planet – you obviously put your brain to bed every night in thimble. The figures I’m quoting ARE NOT government figures, they were produced by PEW RESEARCH and they are ACCURATE!!!

        Total Republican idiots ON PURPOSE did exactly what was rarely ever done before just to do everything they could to sabotage the economy – they cut budgets and state services during a recession TO DELIBERATELY THROW MORE PEOPLE OUT OF WORK AND ADD TO UNEMPLOYMENT DAMPENING THE ECONOMY!!!!

        The entire Republican Party, the American Mafia and Party of the Devil, whose henchmen YOU ARE!! Should all be tried for TREASON for deliberately doing everything they could over the past 6 years to sabotage America!!! Go take flying leap you absolute idiot!!!!!!!!!

        1. kenndeb August 20, 2014

          I tend to think treason would qualify for those that support a communist tyrant in lieu of supporting our constitution. And again, I’m a democrat, or at least was until it started acting more like the amerikan communist party.


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