New face of food stamps: working-age Americans

Slow economic recovery with high unemployment, stagnant wages and increasing gulf between low-wage and high-skill jobs play big role
Associated Press
Jan 27, 2014

In a first, working-age people now make up the majority in U.S. households that rely on food stamps — a switch from a few years ago, when children and the elderly were the main recipients.

Some of the change is due to demographics, such as the trend toward having fewer children. But a slow economic recovery with high unemployment, stagnant wages and an increasing gulf between low-wage and high-skill jobs also plays a big role. It suggests that government spending on the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program — twice what it cost five years ago — may not subside significantly anytime soon.

Food stamp participation since 1980 has grown the fastest among workers with some college training, a sign that the safety net has stretched further to cover America's former middle class, according to an analysis of government data for The Associated Press by economists at the University of Kentucky. Formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or SNAP, the program now covers 1 in 7 Americans.

The findings coincide with the latest economic data showing workers' wages and salaries growing at the lowest rate relative to corporate profits in U.S. history.

President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night is expected to focus in part on reducing income inequality, such as by raising the federal minimum wage. Congress, meanwhile, is debating cuts to food stamps, with Republicans including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., wanting a $4 billion-a-year reduction to an anti-poverty program that they say promotes dependency and abuse.

Economists say having a job may no longer be enough for self-sufficiency in today's economy.

"A low-wage job supplemented with food stamps is becoming more common for the working poor," said Timothy Smeeding, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in income inequality. "Many of the U.S. jobs now being created are low- or minimum-wage — part-time or in areas such as retail or fast food — which means food stamp use will stay high for some time, even after unemployment improves."

The newer food stamp recipients include Maggie Barcellano, 25, of Austin, Texas. A high school graduate, she enrolled in college but didn't complete her nursing degree after she could no longer afford the tuition.

Hoping to boost her credentials, she went through emergency medical technician training with the Army National Guard last year but was unable to find work as a paramedic because of the additional certification and fees required. Barcellano, now the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, finally took a job as a home health aide, working six days a week at $10 an hour. Struggling with the low income, she recently applied for food stamps with the help of the nonprofit Any Baby Can, to help save up for paramedic training.

"It's devastating," Barcellano said. "When I left for the Army I was so motivated, thinking I was creating a situation where I could give my daughter what I know she deserves. But when I came back and basically found myself in the same situation, it was like it was all for naught."

Since 2009, more than 50 percent of U.S. households receiving food stamps have been adults ages 18 to 59, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. The food stamp program defines non-elderly adults as anyone younger than 60.

As recently as 1998, the working-age share of food stamp households was at a low of 44 percent, before the dot-com bust and subsequent recessions in 2001 and 2007 pushed new enrollees into the program, according to the analysis by James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.

By education, about 28 percent of food stamp households are headed by a person with at least some college training, up from 8 percent in 1980. Among those with four-year college degrees, the share rose from 3 percent to 7 percent. High-school graduates head the bulk of food stamp households at 37 percent, up from 28 percent. In contrast, food stamp households headed by a high-school dropout have dropped by more than half, to 28 percent.

The shifts in food stamp participation come amid broader changes to the economy such as automation, globalization and outsourcing, which have polarized the job market. Many good-paying jobs in areas such as manufacturing have disappeared, shrinking the American middle class and bumping people with higher levels of education into lower-wage work.

An analysis Ziliak conducted for the AP finds that stagnant wages and income inequality play an increasing role in the growth of food stamp rolls.

Taking into account changing family structure, higher unemployment and policy expansions to the food stamp program, the analysis shows that stagnant wages and income inequality explained just 3.5 percent of the change in food stamp enrollment from 1980 to 2011. But from 2000 to 2011, wages and inequality accounted for 13 percent of the increase.

Several economists say food stamp rolls are likely to remain elevated for some time. Historically, there has been a lag before an improving unemployment rate leads to a substantial decline in food stamp rolls; the Congressional Budget Office has projected it could take 10 years.

"We do not expect income inequality stabilizing or declining in the absence of real wage growth or a significant reduction in unemployment and underemployment problems," said Ishwar Khatiwada, an economist for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University who reviewed the Labor and Commerce departments' wage data.

Full- and part-time workers employed year-round saw the fastest growth in food stamp participation since 1980, making up 17 percent and 7 percent of households, respectively. In contrast, the share of food stamp households headed by an unemployed person has remained largely unchanged, at 53 percent. Part-year workers declined in food stamp share.



mimi's word

I did put my opinion in about the article. I am just tired of reading about another single mother who is struggling even after she joined the service and attended schooling. I also do know what is going on just because I overheard a conversation doesn't mean I was not involved. I was sitting right there while the conversation took place I just chose not to join in because I was the minority! I wasn't sitting next to a door with a glass! I am sorry if I do not empathize or feel sorry for people who are single parents and need help feeding their kids! I did not tell them to be careless and get knocked up by some loser who is not helping them. Why are all the stories about single parents if there are so many elderly and disabled and families on assistance? I just don’t find it settling to know that I have worked up to 5 jobs at one time and still struggle because I did not have any kids and did not have insurance and worked minimum wage jobs to try and pay for everything! I am not assuming anything! I have never said anything about people who by no fault of their own should not receive help! It is the people who have chosen their own road who have fallen and now they get help??? Where is my help? When I didn't have money to keep heat on I got nothing, I had no heat. When I didn't have money for food I worked at a fast food restaurant and took left overs home so I had food. I got several jobs and have worked my youth away and still continue to struggle. So I am sorry if you feel that I have no opinion on the matter I do and I am allowed to have it just like you. I just do not find the need to be nasty to you because your opinion differs from mine.

The Big Dog's back

May God bless you. You'll need it when you meet Him.

mimi's word

Really why?

Darwin's choice

Douchebag, hope you meet him today! Nevermind obama blowie, you'll never get there.


Darwin, it is not necessary to call others names and be so hateful. We are all different and can and should have different opinions. Just because you hate the President does not mean the rest of us have to.

Darwin's choice

Sorry there cheerleader, but you fail to see its not the president I'm disgusted by, it's the crap he spews, and sheeple like you eat it up. Our country is going down the chitter, and you act like your right!

mimi's word

I am glad your point is so article appropriate...


"I just do not find the need to be nasty to you because your opinion differs from mine."

Lying hypocrite!


Mimi, your pride got in the way of you receiving help. It is not a bad thing to need help, especially if you are helping yourself. BTW, I was not nasty to you. I simply pointed out the obvious.

mimi's word

I was raised to fix it on your own...I am sorry we do not see things the same. I understand you do not feel my poinion was article related but others did. I felt very attacked...But at least you are not Think Again...they have decided to follow me to every article I have posted on and tell of how hateful I am! I got a STALKER! (ugh)


MiMi, I hear that you are very frustrated and it sounds like you have worked very hard and it was very difficult for you. I am here to tell you, though, that any "benefits" any single mom would get from having a child pales in comparison to the actual cost (both monetary and emotionally) of raising that child. Having a child to get "benefits" is like buying lottery tickets to get rich. It never works and the lifelong struggle of the mom and the children is incalculable. I feel very sorry for young women who think this is a "way out." It most certainly is not and most of them will realize that the hard way. In the mean time, there are children brought into this world and they need to eat and have access to basic necessities to simply survive. We can not let someone's naive and stupid actions derail us from the obvious need to care for those who can not otherwise care for themselves.


I always enjoy your hateful attitude...I am so glad you know all about being judgmental...

mimi's word

Think again...I am so glad that you have decided to stalk me from article to article. I guess my opinion is very important to you! I am not a hypocrite! I felt that Deertracker was being a jerk to me and was being rude to me when I was stating my opinion so I stated as much. He also did not understand my statements where others did so I am not sure where I am being so hateful but that is fine you are allowed your opinion on the article. HOWEVER you do not know me or any struggles that I have been through to that form my ideas and options. Do not attack me on a personal level that makes you hateful.


Our daughter has a college degree but has been unable to find any type of work (even BK wouldn't hire her - told her she was over-qualified). She's lost her apartment & is now on food stamps, still trying to find work. Sad


P.I.B. Will be hiring all sorts of different people. Tell her To fill out an application.


Even a college degree doesn't guarantee you a job. And then there are those loans.


Nothing guarantees a job, but education increases your odds. That's a statistical fact.


A college degree can sometimes make it worse. They tell you you are OVER qualified. A job is better than NO job.


Regardless, a higher percentage of people without degrees are UNEMPLOYED.


Yep, but there are still those school loans you have to pay back. Many cannot and will never be able to pay them back. So that bubble has already started to burst.

And they still keep pushing to go to school increase your personal debt.

Do they forgive those loans?


College loans are not forgiven. They will hound you forever.


Thank you, I thought so.


Spent time in the Carolina's for business. Jobs are plentiful down there. Construction is booming. Now homes being built. Jobs for all levels of education.

Sometimes you have to follow the jobs rather than whine about them not being available.

Besides the weather sure is better down there.

Dwight K.

I'm under 30 and receive medical and food stamps and I'm embarrassed by it...I'm disabled too

mimi's word

I hope you understand my comments are not for you. I just know of some who goes out to eat 4-6 times per week, kids are in all kinds of activities, goes on vacations once per year, if not more, and i can barely get by and I work as much as I can 2 jobs most of the time just to get by. I am working my life away with nothing to show for it. it just gets overwhelming to not be somewhat angry

Dwight K.

Oh no didn't think that...believe me I know what you mean people do abuse the systems.


Dwight K, Your situation is totally different.

Dwight K.

Uh yeah I know that


I know of someone who gets all the freebies and baby-sits on the side. You ask why I don't turn her in? Because they don't believe you. YOU can't prove that she is getting paid. YOU can't prove that she works under the table. YOU can't prove that she doesn't have a mental illness. The state doesn't believe that any of these free loaders aren't what they say they are. So you sit here and watch them enjoy life while others bust their butt to survive and all the while you know that abuse of the system goes on and there is nothing you can do about it.


After the government gets done driving this bus so far into the ditch we will never recover we will see the headline "Food lines for everyone" The communist love food lines.