As food stamp utilization escalated over the last several years, the program’s advocates assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Yes, more people than ever before were on food stamps, but that was just because of the recession. Once the recovery began and the unemployment rate declined, fewer people would need food stamps.
Yet, newly released data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture now tells us that in 2013, years after the recession officially ended, 20 percent of U.S. households were on food stamps, an all-time high. According to the USDA, 23.05 million households received food stamps in FY2013. While no doubt some increase in food stamps was a countercyclical response to the recession, this cannot adequately explain why the number of households in the program has increased by 4.43 million since 2010—a period of consistent, albeit low, job growth and a decreasing unemployment rate.
This continued increase in food stamp participation runs counter to the projections put out by the Congressional Budget Office, which in 2011 projected that SNAP participation would decline from 2012 levels to 45.9 million individual participants in 2013. Instead, average monthly enrollment for 2013 was 47.6 million. The continued growth in food stamp participation raises the question of when, if ever, the program will return to pre-recession levels as promised.
In fact, as I pointed out in this policy analysis last year, much of the growth in the program was not due to the recession, but rather to deliberate policy choices that loosened eligibility and work requirements.