The number of food stamp users in the United States reached a record in August of more than 23 million--or nearly one person in 10--the Agriculture Department said Wednesday.
And if trends continue, the numbers will climb even higher this winter, experts said.
The August figures were a surprise even to officials of the department that issued them. Phil Shanholtzer, USDA Food and Nutrition Services spokesman, said that a slight increase in the number of food stamp users had been anticipated because of the recession but that such a large increase--3 million more than at the same time last year--was unexpected.
“The figures are generally higher in the cold winter months and drop off in the warmer months,” he said. “But this year they continued to climb in the warmer months.”
Shanholtzer said that the exact reason for the increase is unknown, but likely factors include the recession and changes in the program that have made food stamps available to more people. Those changes include simpler application procedures, outreach programs and changes in the eligibility rules for immigrants.
The number of Americans relying on food stamps reached 23.57 million in August, compared with 20.49 million a year earlier. September figures have not yet been released.
The national trend was reflected in California as well, which recorded just over 1.9 million food stamp users in July, 1990, compared with 2.3 million this year. The figures were the latest that were available for the state. In Los Angeles County, food stamp users increased from 662,710 in August, 1990, to 787,308 in August, 1991.
Because food stamps are issued by the Department of Agriculture under an entitlement program, Congress is required to appropriate enough funds to meet the needs of the program. Under the budget for the 1992 fiscal year, Congress appropriated $22.3 billion for the program, with an additional $1.5 billion set aside to meet unexpected needs.
Shanholtzer said he anticipates that the $1.5 billion set aside as a cushion will cover any further increases in food stamp participation that may come this winter, but some consumer activists were less certain.
Rodney Leonard, director of the Community Nutrition Institute, a Washington-based interest group, said that the money Congress appropriated for the food stamp program for fiscal year 1992 was based on the assumption that the country will be emerging from a recession.
Predicting that the number of people relying on food stamps this winter could reach 25 million, Leonard said:
“We’re going into winter now with more people coming off of jobless benefits, less part-time work available and just a general (economic) deterioration, which means many people have only food stamps to rely on.
“That simply means we’ll go right through the additional $1.5 billion. I suspect Congress will have to appropriate another $2 billion,” he said.
Leonard said that many people who do not qualify for unemployment or have received the maximum amount of unemployment benefits are still in need and still qualify for food stamps.
The maximum food stamp benefit for a family of four is $354 a month. Families can earn up to $1,376 a month, or $16,512 a year, before losing eligibility.
In a statement released Wednesday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that the newly released figures “show the depth and breadth of the recession.”
“This is proof of what most Americans already know and the Administration wants to ignore--the Administration’s current economic policies have failed and are forcing hard-working Americans from their jobs and onto the welfare lines,” he said.