America’s ‘Food Stamp Nation’ continues to grow
TheStar.com – news/world/uselection
Published On Sat Feb 11 2012. By Bill Schiller, Foreign Affairs Reporter – Syracuse, N.Y.
In the first few minutes of the first day of February, in the darkened parking lot of a 24-hour Wal-Mart, Tamara, a Syracuse mother of two, is packing a trunk load of milk, eggs and other essentials into a friend’s car.
She’s pleased. She was running out of supplies and carefully timed this visit to buy more food minutes after midnight — the moment her automated “food stamp” card would be topped up for a new month.
“I’ve got two children,” she says. “I’ve got to have food.”
So do 46 million other Americans.
In what is clearly the country’s most troubled period in modern times, a Food Stamp Nation-within-a-nation is swelling to proportions that seemed unthinkable five years ago.
In 2006, there were 26.7 million people on food stamps in America. By September 2011, that number had grown to a record 46.3 million, bigger by far than Canada’s population of 33 million, and equal to that of Spain.
In fact, if the Americans using food stamps constituted a country, they would be the 27th largest nation in the world.
Nowhere is their urgent need more obvious than in the aisles of America’s best-known retailer.
In the first minutes of each month, food stamp purchases at 24-hour Wal-Marts across the country surge as Food Stamp Nation drives through the dark to purchase sorely needed food.
“Our sales for those first few hours on the first day of the month are substantially and significantly higher,” Wal-Mart CEO William S. Simon told a Goldman Sachs conference 18 months ago. “If you really think about it, the only reason somebody goes out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it — and they’ve been waiting for it.”
Months later they’re still doing it, in staggering numbers.
“Every time I know that my food stamps are coming in, I (check) the card non-stop waiting for them to land,” says Tamara, a part-time cashier with two daughters, ages six and two.
This month she was lucky to get to Wal-Mart at midnight. She and her unemployed husband do not own a car. “But a friend from out-of-state is visiting, so she drove us.”
Without food stamps, she says, “I’d be struggling to put food on the table.”
Anyone in America can apply for food stamps, technically known as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and millions do.
At the beginning of last year Texas had the most citizens enrolled in the program with more than 3.5 million people; California was number two at 3.3 million and New York state ranked third with 2.8 million.
To be eligible, an individual must not make more than $14,088 per year.
A person with a family of four can’t have a household income exceeding $28,668.
The average payout isn’t handsome: individuals get $133 per month while families average $290.
But overall, the federal program currently costs taxpayers about $75 billion annually — a point of mounting criticism among conservatives who contend that their tax dollars are being parceled out to people who, they believe, are not contributing to America.
Leading that public charge are Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
New York City is the only place in America, aside from the state of Arizona, where the local government continues to insist on finger-imaging technology, the digital equivalent to fingerprinting, to verify food recipients.
Some recipients feel that process treats them like criminals.
Bloomberg contends that for “people who are receiving things, rather than dedicating their lives to make it better, (this) is hardly something that’s a great imposition or that anyone should feel stigmatized about.”
That wasn’t exactly the spirit in which the program began.
Launched under John F. Kennedy, first as a pilot project and later permanently by Lyndon Baines Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty,” the program was supported by the American agricultural sector keen to have more markets for its produce, as well as liberals and conservatives in an era when bipartisan agreements on key issues were still possible in America.
Those days, of course, are long gone and the program is now under attack.
“If you ask a liberal, all of these people (on food stamps) are oppressed — people who got screwed by the elite,” says Syracuse University political scientist Jeffrey Stonecash. “If you ask a conservative, these are simply people who made choices, like deciding not to continue their education.”
How Americans view food stamps now, “is entirely a function of one’s ideology,” he says.
Seeking political advantage, Gingrich is making a direct appeal to that part of American society that is now angry, explains Stonecash, people who have lost their homes, their retirement accounts, who have worked hard and now think, “there’s this vast welfare state out there that is consuming huge amounts of money.”
And it’s not just Gingrich.
“There are an awful lot of Republicans who think ‘the welfare state’ has become too big,” Prof. Stonecash observes.
But Gingrich went further last month, treading into still-sensitive territory on America’s racial divide, insisting on calling President Barack Obama “the best food stamp president” ever, and saying African-Americans want “jobs, not food stamps.”
That went too far, says Syracuse University’s Prof. Eric Kingson, calling Gingrich’s attacks “coded racism.”
“The notion that is being put forward is, ‘he’s put all that money into welfare programs for African-Americans.’ That’s the imagery,” says Kingson, “and it’s just plain wrong.”
Kingson is concerned Gingrich’s message is no off-the-cuff remark.
“These kinds of messages are carefully developed and generally tested with polling (to determine) what works among different constituencies,” he says, “. . . like the kind of support he got in South Carolina.”
Gingrich won big in the South Carolina primary.
Democrats in Washington, however, got a huge boost with the announcement that some 243,000 new jobs were created in January and the unemployment rate dipped to 8.3 per cent, its lowest in three years.
Still, those figures don’t mean much on the streets of Syracuse.
Every weekday morning on the second floor of the John H. Mulroy Civic Center on Montgomery St., the “intake” room for Onondaga County, of which Syracuse is the county seat, overflows with people seeking social assistance.
They are of all ages, all races and some have children in tow.
Helpful signs guide the uninitiated: “Applying for Food Stamps: Complete blue & white application — drop in tray in booth 9 — have a seat until your name is called,” instructs one.
Names are called out over a loudspeaker every couple of minutes.
On one window a flyer titled “Food Stamp Rights” informs visitors that anyone can get an application on request, turn it in the same day and receive food stamps — or a notice that they are ineligible — within 30 days.
Out on the street, Jessica Hartz, an unemployed mother of four who used to work at a Price Chopper store, explains that she first got on food stamps in 2008 and still relies on them. They amount to “about $200 a month.” .
She has no family support, she explains: she is divorced; her mother recently died; her father disowned her; and today she lives with a friend.
“It’s good that they’re there,” she says of the stamps. “With this economy now, it’s really hard to get a job. I don’t even know how people are doing it.”
Trevor Bridges is another homeless person without family support. He has been living on his own since he was 15.
He has been relying on stamps for three months and says applying was a debilitating experience.
“They judge you,” he says. “They can be rude. They’ve never been in other people’s shoes.”
Bridges attributes his fate to “my upbringing, and partly because I made a lot of bad choices.” He left school in Grade 9, a decision he now regrets.
“I never once passed a single grade,” he confides. “The teachers just passed me because they didn’t want to deal with me.”
Today he suffers from a chronic nervous condition, so the stamps are important, especially given Syracuse’s tough economy.
Once a vibrant manufacturing hub, today’s Syracuse is home to the highest rates of poverty in the state, with 32 per cent of residents living below the poverty line. That’s more than twice the national rate of 15.1 per cent.
The U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 put the poverty threshold for a single person at $11,344. For a family of four, including two children, it’s $23,133.
“We have some of the poorest census tracts in the United States,” Mayor Stephanie Miner said, “and our poverty rates are actually higher than Buffalo and Rochester.
“We have a growing level of people who are struggling.”
Miner wants some of what Governor Andrew Cuomo allocated to Buffalo last month because of its acute poverty: $1 billion over the next several years.
Statistics for Syracuse’s Onondaga County show that between 2007 and 2011 the number of people and households relying on food stamps skyrocketed.
In 2007, there were more than 41,000 residents relying on food stamps. Last year that leapt to about 68,800.
In 2007, there were just under 20,000 households relying on food stamps. Last year that surged to more than 34,000.
And the costs of running the program shot up too, by 133 per cent, from $48.5 million in 2007 to more than $111 million last year.
Any talk about cutting the federal program troubles Miner.
“You worry about people being hungry and what people will do if they’re hungry,” she says.
“If you were to cut the food stamp program, or eliminate the food stamp program, it would have a dire impact on the city’s residents.”
But there is other infrastructure in place in Syracuse.
The city, which has a population of just 145,000 people, is home to 59 pantries distributing food to the poor.
Studies show that food stamps typically last only 17.5 days, says Peter Parrillo Jr. He is a retired insurance executive directing Cathedral Emergency Services, the Catholic charity that runs one of the city’s biggest food banks, distributing more than $20,000 of groceries per month to about 600 people.
Many food stamp recipients depend on pantries to get them through the rest of the month, he explains.
The pantries also supply recipients with items they’re not allowed to buy with food stamps under government regulations, such as toilet paper and toothpaste.
But for all his good work and concern for the poor, Parrillo doesn’t think government should really be involved.
“I’m not a big believer that the government should be feeding people,” he says in his broad upstate New York accent. “I believe you and I should though.
“But we’ve now created a situation where people are dependent on food stamps.”
Yet the signs of a worsening economic situation are everywhere: people who used to be donors to the charity are now recipients; a dip in donations has led to a reduction in groceries distributed; and the numbers of people in need continues to grow.
“I just don’t see it improving,” says Parrillo. “I see it getting worse. I see more and more people who are dependent on food pantries to feed their children.”
He calls the situation “devastating.”
And a growing number of young people are utterly ill-equipped to help themselves.
“I have 19-year-olds who come in and can’t fill out a form, who can’t spell, who don’t have basic math skills. Where are they going to work?”
Political scientist Stonecash worries they might not work anywhere. If so, they’re likely to become what sociologists are now calling “the left behinds,” second and even third generations of people whose regions have been subjected to chronic long-term unemployment.
“Forty or 50 years ago you could be relatively poor and uneducated and do okay,” he notes. “But the fundamental fact is that the vast array of unskilled blue collar jobs that were once out there — attached to a union or to a factory — are gone.”
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