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Food Stamp Rise : The Recovery That Wasn’t

Posted 09/20/2013 8:55 am by



At the bustling weekly Sunday farmers’ market here, $7 buys a gallon of freshly pressed apple cider, $10 a wedge of award-winning goat cheese. Eight kinds of melons spill over one farmer’s table, while another overflows with organic kale, collard greens and purple heirloom tomatoes. If there was ever a sign of post-recession abundance and prosperity in the USA, this would be it.


Yet in the span of a few hours Sunday morning, dozens of shoppers queued up at an unmarked awning near the market’s entrance, each handing over a bright orange debit card that allows them to buy fresh fruits and vegetables with federal food stamp benefits. City workers swiped the bright orange “Independence Cards” 53 times. The contrast suggests just how far the USA still has to go to pull out of its economic malaise, and Census Bureau data released today confirm it: 13.6% of U.S. households received federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits last year, up from 13% in 2011 and only 8.6% in 2008 at the height of the recession. For many here and elsewhere, this is the Recovery That Wasn’t.


The fresh Census data detail everything from family income to marriage patterns, household size, commuting times and migration patterns, offering a detailed annual snapshot of how American lives are changing year by year.


Here in Baltimore, a port city that has found new life attracting high-tech workers, the recovery has been kinder to some neighborhoods than others. On historic North Avenue a few miles north of downtown, blocks of rowhouses sit empty, burnt out or in some cases simply abandoned. When Michele Speaks-March and her husband, Erich March, opened their Apples & Oranges grocery store in this neighborhood last spring,, they knew that “a significant number” of their clientele would rely on food stamps or other subsidies, Speaks-March says. The real figure, they soon learned, was close to 90%.


Since then they’ve struggled to supplement their food stamp business with catering and deli sandwiches, among other ideas. They’ve found that after neighbors’ SNAP benefits run out, around the middle of the month, their customer base dissolves.


A local community organizer, March says he tried to get big grocery chains to open in a vacant space that once housed a Sears Automotive shop — March’s family has operated a funeral home nearby for 60 years. “Nobody was interested in coming to this neighborhood,” he says. “So my wife and I said, ‘If it’s going to happen, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.’ ”


Experts say part of the rise in food stamps results from states expanding eligibility but that much of the past few years’ increase is due to extended unemployment.


“In this economy we still have millions of individuals out of work,” says Stacy Dean ofthe liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Poverty in America today, she says, is largely a story of unemployed workers or those who must combine their wages with public assistance in order to survive. “It’s either that the wages or the hours are insufficient in order to be a living income.”


Congress is debating whether to tighten eligibility, which could reduce the number of people receiving the food aid. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., supports allowing states to require able-bodied recipients to spend 20 hours a week in either a job or job training. And a House vote on cutting nearly $4 billion a year from food stamp assistance could come Thursday.


Like many others — including analysts at the Congressional Budget Office — Dean expects food stamp enrollment to taper off as a more robust recovery takes hold, but that may not happen for years. CBO doesn’t expect SNAP enrollment to fall below pre-recession levels until 2019.


“It is very much a barometer of the economy for low-income Americans,” Dean says, “but what it’s telling us is that it’s still a very tumultuous time for them.”


One key indicator: 48% of households headed by females with children under 5 now live in poverty, up from 45 % in 2008.


“It is clear that the most economically vulnerable populations are the least likely to show signs of recovery,” says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.


At the farmers’ market, many SNAP recipients wait eagerly to trade their benefits for special $1 wooden tokens that they can exchange for produce. One woman holds a crumpled nylon Trader Joe’s grocery bag at her side as a tiny child clings to her leg. A tall man in a purple Baltimore Ravens jersey, his child riding high in a baby backpack, waits behind her. Another woman, standing nearby, pulls a stainless steel travel mug from her bag and says her first stop each week is Zeke’s Coffee stand — if you provide the mug, she explains, coffee is $1 instead of the usual $2.


“It’s a sign of the times,” says Carole Simon, the market manager. “So many people don’t have jobs or they have low-paying jobs.”


Jennifer Johnson, 37, of Baltimore, a nanny for 20 years, says she’s happy to be able to afford the fresh fruits and vegetables, even on SNAP. “Because we have issues and we have to be on this doesn’t mean that we’re second-rate,” she says.

Other findings:


• Average household and family size stopped growing for the first time since the recession, holding at 2.64 and 3.25, respectively. Both indicators had been dropping for years before the downturn forced foreclosed families to crowd together with relatives and sent adult kids “boomeranging” to their parents’ homes.


• Birth rates


stopped dropping, holding at 54 per 1,000 women age 15 to 50. They actually ticked up for women who are 35 to 50, perhaps a sign of delayed childbearing beginning as the economy improves.


• The USA’s foreign-born population stayed at 13%, up just about 300,000 from 2011.


. As a result, it’s getting more assimilated. The share that have become citizens keeps rising and could reach 50% within a few years. It’s 45.8%, up from 42% in 2006.


– The share of people who speak a language other than English keeps ticking up — it’s 21% — but the share of those who speak English less than “very well”has dropped to 8.5%.


– The average commuting time continued to rise after dropping during the recession, when highway congestion dropped. It’s 25.7 minutes, up from 25.1 minutes in 2009. The percentage of people who work at home ticked up again, reaching 4.4% in 2012, up from 3.9% in 2006.


– The USA’s housing vacancy rate dropped sharply, to 12.4% from 13.1%, the lowest since 2008.


Kenneth Johnson,a University of New Hampshire demographer, says the new findings suggest that the recession’s impact on migration “may be diminishing,” with domestic migration reaching its highest level in five years: Nearly 16.9 million migrants moved between counties in 2012, a gain of 175,000 over 2011.



Census: No sign of economic rebound for many in US

WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as the economy shows signs of improvement and poverty levels off, new U.S. census data suggests the gains are halting and uneven. Depending on education, race, income and even marriage, not all segments of the population are seeing an economic turnaround.

Poverty is on the rise in single-mother families. More people are falling into the lowest-income group. And after earlier signs of increased mobility, fewer people are moving as homeownership declined for a fifth straight year.

“We’re in a selective recovery,” said William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who analyzed the numbers.

The annual U.S. survey of socioeconomic indicators covers all of last year, representing the third year of a postrecession rebound.

The figures, released Thursday, also show a slightly faster pace of growth in the foreign-born population, which increased to 40.8 million, or 13 percent of the U.S. Last year’s immigration increase of 440,000 people was a reversal of a 2011 dip in the influx, when many Mexicans already in the U.S. opted to return home.

Many of the newer immigrants are now higher-skilled workers from Asian countries such as China and India. The number of immigrants in the U.S. with less than a high school diploma, who make up the bulk of the total foreign-born population, fell slightly in 2012 to 10.8 million. Immigrants with bachelor’s degrees or higher rose by more than 4 percent to 9.8 million.

In all, 21 states saw declines last year in their Hispanic foreign-born population, led by New Mexico, Illinois and Georgia.

The number of Americans in poverty remained largely unchanged at a record 46.5 million. Single-mother families in poverty increased for the fourth straight year to 4.1 million, or 41.5 percent, coinciding with longer-term trends of declining marriage and out-of-wedlock births. Many of these mothers are low income with low education. The share of married-couple families in poverty remained unchanged at 2.1 million, or 8.7 percent.

By race or ethnicity, a growing proportion of poor children are Hispanic, a record 37 percent of the total. Whites make up 30 percent, blacks 26 percent.

Nearly 2.2 million children were poor in California last year, the most of any state, but the child poverty rate was highest in Mississippi, where more than 1 in 3 children was poor. Nationwide, child poverty stood at 21.8 percent, unchanged from the previous year.

“Stubbornly high child poverty rates in the wake of the Great Recession suggest we have not yet turned the corner three years after its official end,” said Marybeth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute.

The numbers also reflect widening economic inequality, an issue President Barack Obama has pledged would be a top priority of his administration to address. Upward mobility in the U.S. has been hurt by a tight job market and the longer-term disappearance of midskill jobs due to globalization and automation.

The new census data shows that lower-income households are a steadily increasing share of the population, while middle- to higher-income groups shrank or were flat.

In 2012, households earning less than $24,999 made up 24.4 percent of total households, up from 21.7 percent four years earlier. The share of households earning $50,000 to $99,999 slipped from 31.2 percent to 29.9 percent. Top-income households making more than $200,000 dipped less, from 5 percent to 4.6 percent over that period.

The still-weak economy also meant fewer household moves in 2012.

After showing signs of increased migration in 2011, fewer Americans were on the move, many because of few job opportunities or the inability to buy a home.

U.S. migration fell by 0.2 percent in 2012 after edging up the previous year. While the number of longer-distance moves remained steady at 2.3 percent, moves within a county edged lower to 9 percent, particularly among young adults 18-34.

Demographers say that suggests eroding career opportunities and a diminished ability to buy a home. Young adults typically make long-distance moves to seek a new career, while those who make local moves often do so when buying a home.

Homeownership declined for the fifth year in the row to 63.9 percent.

“Many Americans continue to think that a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan economist. “But the bad news is that given the way economic growth trickles down now, the number of poor and disadvantaged will remain high unless we do more to help those in need.”

With poverty remaining high, food stamp use continued to climb. Roughly 15.8 million, or 13.6 percent of U.S. households, received food stamps, the highest level on record. Just over half of these households, or 52 percent, were below poverty and 44 percent had one or more people with a disability.

By state, Oregon led the nation in food stamp use at 20.1 percent, or 1 in 5, due in part to generous state provisions that expand food stamp eligibility to families. Oregon was followed by more rural or more economically hard-hit states, including Mississippi, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan and Tennessee. Wyoming had the fewest households on food stamps, at 7 percent.

In 45 states and the District of Columbia, poverty rates remained steady at high levels. Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, was one of just three states posting increases, from 22.6 percent to 24.2 percent. California and New Hampshire were the others.

In Minnesota and Texas, the percentage of people in poverty declined.

Among the 25 largest metropolitan areas, the Washington, D.C., area had the highest median household income in 2012 at $88,233, followed by the San Francisco and Boston metro areas. The Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area had the lowest median house income at $44,402.

The official poverty level is based on a government calculation that includes only income before tax deductions. It excludes noncash government aid such as food stamps. Counting food stamps would have boosted 4 million people, lowering the U.S. poverty rate to 13.7 percent.


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