The New Face of Food Stamps: Working-Age Americans

Food Stamps Income Inequality
Tamir Kalifa/APMaggie Barcellano sits with her daughter, Zoe, 3, at Barcellano's father's house in Austin, Texas. Barcellano enrolled in the food stamps program to help save up for paramedic training while she works as a home health aide and raises her daughter.

WASHINGTON -- 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.

-Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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I would like to know where the husband,boyfriend,are the father of this child is?Why is he not supporting this child and wife,girlfriend,?,<<>Nothing about a father are husband<>Their are a lot of scammers in the welfare system,,where i live in shasta county ca. 39% of the county is on welfare<

January 28 2014 at 3:06 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

In my opinion - the primary cause of the up-tick in persons receiving food stamps is President Barack Hussein Obama and his administration.

The decline in number of 'real' jobs also is 'by design' via President Barack Hussein Obama and his administration.

It's too 'involved' to go into within a 'comment' section But in general- it is a 'type of 'Moving Forward' ideology. In the long run it will NOT succeed; However - Scary just the same.

Also, just in my opinion - ObamaCare is like an octopus - you have the Huge center and then coming out from the 'massive' Center are many tenacles that reach into many other 'things'.

To all 'lefties, socialists, etc. - Go ahead - call me 'crazy', stupid, etc. - As that saying goes - "Time will tell". To All - Have a GREAT Day !!!!!

January 27 2014 at 2:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to xtrees130's comment

Hey, I think you freaking nailed it. Right on every point. Time will tell, I just hope when it does, it's not too late.

January 27 2014 at 3:34 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply

Our good jobs are going overseas and gone. This is the GOP way of doing business, the rich get richer and the poor gets poorer and more of them for now we are a service country with low paying jobs. The big money machine of the GOP has taken over for people now cannot think for themselves, not everyone, thank god for the democrats.

January 27 2014 at 2:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to toosmart4u's comment

Democrats can't think for themselves, that's what Obama and other members of the DNC are for.

January 27 2014 at 3:00 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

We can't produce qualified resources to fill existing positions so companies have to go elsewhere. Are you aware that approximately 20% of high school student will drop out before graduation. Are you also aware that most quality jobs are either related to technology or require a knowledge of technology to operate, that includes manufacturing. Are you also aware that many of our manufacturing plants have obsolete equipment whereas many foreign plants are state of the art. We, USA, have got to get our act together and it starts with our kids.

January 27 2014 at 5:32 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply

There's really no new faces in the Handout business, it's just the same type that vote Democrat for a living.

January 27 2014 at 2:46 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

does anyone consider the plain truth that 545 people exercise power of the federal government, then it must follow that what exists is what they want to exist. BOTH PARTIES.

January 27 2014 at 2:15 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

This is all part of the GOP plan for America - Get rid of unions, let corporations write the rules, keep wages low and let the Koch brothers dictate the agenda. Eventual result - a huge increase in the number of working poor people. As Voltaire so astutely observed in the early 18th century, “'The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.”

January 27 2014 at 2:07 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to dugerman85's comment


January 27 2014 at 1:55 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

This kind of article always troubles me. Here we have a woman, who hasn't yet found her feet in life, but makes the choice to go ahead and bring a child into the world, as if it's just an eventuality. Now, because she's compounded her own difficulties with her life choices, she asks taxpayers to subsidize her errant decision making.

Who's to say she'll ever start making good decisions? With her parents and taxpayers bailing for her, is there any incentive for her to start taking a hard look at her decisions? Welcome to the cycle of multi-generational welfare and dependency.

January 27 2014 at 1:48 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jj2301's comment

Those were my thoughts exactly as I read this article. If she wasn't on her feet financially, why on earth did she allow herself to get pregnant? Extremely irresponsible.

January 27 2014 at 1:50 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to lmaar2's comment


January 27 2014 at 2:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

what if she was raped? what if her husband left her? what if she left her abusive husband? why isn't the father of the child held up to the same level of scorn you heap on this young woman? People are so judgmental without knowing the facts.

January 27 2014 at 2:36 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to keithm940's comment

All of those possibilities you listed probabaly add up to less than 1% of single mothers.

January 27 2014 at 3:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down

I'm sure the article would have mentioned your strawmen, if they existed. To answer your question, yes I think the same of the father. He needs to step up and provide, instead of letting her family and the taxpayers do it for him. He's probably some unskilled dolt who doesn't have any skills and no idea how to acquire them.

Judgmental? Yes. I delayed life's gratifications until I could *afford* them and even then, I picked and chose those I wanted most. People seem to want to have everything and not be held accountable for it these days.

January 27 2014 at 6:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down

unemployment benefits, welfare and foodstamps were not intended to be a career some people need it for a while but let not make it from generation to generation. Obama's lazy ass people need to go to work, b ut they don't it is easy to collect, we have to wake up give them limits and that is that

January 27 2014 at 1:48 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

In 2008, Obama promised to go over the Federal budget line by line and eliminate wasteful spending. Unfortunately, that was lie #4,265. Can't wait for the state of the union address tomorrow to hear that the economy is "doing fine." The worst president EVER.

January 27 2014 at 1:47 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to hhplus's comment

I refuse to watch this stuff anymore. Just pisses me off. Rather watch a sitcom so I can laugh instead or read a book.

January 27 2014 at 2:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply