It has been estimated that America’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) helps over 40 million low income citizens each year, a number which has significantly risen following the impact of the recession on food prices and employment. Last year SNAP cost the government $76.4 billion (providing an average of $133.08 per month of food assistance for each user of the program). This hefty sum has led many who do not use the program to question its sustainability, a concern compounded by the fact that there have been frequent cases of misuse of the service by those who have defrauded the government (through hiding assets or abusing loopholes in the system).
For those who need the assistance, however, SNAP has proved invaluable in providing American citizens with a means to survive. However the program is not simply intended to prevent hunger, it also seeks to stop lower-income families from being forced to eat an unhealthy or unvaried diet (something that has been shown to contribute to health concerns later in life).
This year food stamps were predominantly received by working-age Americans, marking a shift as the program has previously been dominated by elderly recipients. Around 1 in 7 now rely on the program and the overall cost to the government has doubled in five years. A review of minimum wages, and widespread protests against unfair wages, has focused public attention on the fact that many working low-wage jobs remain reliant on SNAP, even whilst working long, arduous hours.
Fundamental wealth inequality remains the crux of America’s food stamp crisis. Whilst the gap between rich and poor widens those who live below the poverty line are forced to become increasingly reliant upon state benefits. Until America’s considerable wealth becomes more equally spread among its citizens, it is hard to imagine how the number of food stamp users can be reduced without leaving some hungry.
As we present an overview of the ten states with the highest percentage of food stamp users (based on USDA statistics via statisticbrain) we examine the circumstances around each state's dependence on government assistance.
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10 Maine, 18.5%
Maine’s program is intended to ensure that eating on a low income does not lead to poor health, based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan. ‘Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity’ revealed that 87, 000 children living in Maine receive food stamps, highlighting the importance of the program to the state. This March (2014) Maine was one of the seven states moving to block food stamp cuts attempted by congress under their farm bill, emphasising the value the state places on defending its most needy residents from further hardships.
9 West Virginia, 18.5%
It's perhaps unsurprising that such a high proportion of West Virginians avail of the food stamp program, given that 17.8% live below the poverty line. In a 2013 study, West Virginia was found to be the third poorest state in the US, with a median household income of $40,196 and an unemployment rate of 7.3% (ironically the same study revealed neighbouring Virginia to be the 8th richest). However it's not only the unemployed who are forced to make use of the state’s food stamps; according to research from Berkeley more than half of West Virginia’s fast food workers are in public assistance programs (a worrying reflection of the gap between minimum wage and the current cost of living).
8 Kentucky, 18.8%
Owsley County, in Kentucky, has the lowest median household income of any US county outside Puerto Rico (at $19, 351 p.a.) and has been hit hard by the recent drop in federal food assistance. Currently Kentucky’s Food Assistance Program cannot be used to buy fast food, however ‘Yum!’ is lobbying Kentucky’s governor to change this. The fast food giant argues that relaxing the restrictions would enable those unable to cook to buy hot meals; however many argue that it will affect the community’s health and consequently drive up health care costs for the state.
7 Alabama, 19.1%
Alabama’s recently introduced immigration law has resulted in a number of U.S.-born children (whose parents are illegal immigrants) being denied food stamps, sparking controversy. This may be part of their efforts to trim spending on benefits and reduce the economic impact of illegal immigration upon the state but the effects may be devastating for the families targeted. Within Alabama, a full 17.9% of the population experience food insecurity - one of the key issues food stamps are intended to alleviate. 392, 000 children are reported to be receiving food stamps through SNAP. However, only time will tell how many of these will no longer be able to access the service due to the state’s new immigration law.
6 Louisiana, 19.3%
Back in February, Louisiana’s social services stripped six people of their food stamp allowance after they deliberately overspent on their monthly benefits whilst the electronic service was down last October. During the system crash there were 12, 000 transactions which overspent available food stamps; however it is not known precisely how many people knowingly overspent with the intent to breach their food stamp limits. DCFS has identified 500 people who, during this time, appear to have been intentionally fraudulent with their purchases and these people are set to be disqualified from the program.
5 Michigan, 19.5%
Although the state is known for its farms, food poverty has become a real issue for many of Michigan's citizens (leading to an increase in food stamp usage). Strangely, some in Michigan are opposing Obama’s proposed minimum wage rise on the grounds that it will lead to an increase in food stamps users - a fact actually supported by statistics from previous minimum-wage increases (in 2007 and 2008). 712, 000 children currently receive food stamps in Michigan, something which many argue may increase should the state’s minimum wage of $7.40 is raised to the proposed $10.10 (due to job losses resulting from the increase).
4 New Mexico, 19.8%
Since cuts to the SNAP program hundreds of families in New Mexico have been forced to utilise food banks (at Casa de Peregrinos around 1000 families use the food bank each month). Around 30% of children in New Mexico experience food insecurity (including disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake), which is unfortunately unsurprising given that 20% of citizens live below the poverty level in the state. Overall New Mexico has been ranked second in the nation for adult hunger, placing huge demands upon SNAP as around 81% of those who are eligible avail of the program.
3 Oregon, 19.9%
Currently around 1 in 5 Oregonians receive SNAP, and the program is widely advocated within the state as a way of easing the strain on low-income families. It has been estimated that last November’s cuts to the program will result in $84 million less spent on food in Oregon this year. Oregon’s food stamp substitute ‘Trail Card’ has recently been criticised as Fox investigators discovered it could be used to buy luxury drinks from Starbucks counters inside grocery stores. Although loop holes are an inevitable aspect to the program many have argued that this misuse of the food assistance program is a step too far.
2 Tennessee, 19.9%
Well over a million Tennesseans receive some form of food stamp assistance, with the numbers increasing each year. The state has one of the lowest median household incomes in America, (ranking at 46 with $42,764 per annum) and about 18% of people live in poverty. Despite widespread usage of food stamps (about three quarters of those eligible avail of SNAP) around 16% of households are food insecure, highlighting the drastic effects of cuts to the program. Phil Roe’s proposal to prevent SNAP from being used to buy unhealthy food came under fire last year; as many highlighted that, instead of empowering lower income families to eat healthier, the changes simply remove the choice to eat unhealthily.
1 Mississippi, 20.8%
In the #1 spot, Mississippi has been described by some reports as the nation’s poorest state, with 22% living below the poverty line. Over $80 million in SNAP benefits are dispensed throughout the state each month, easing the burden on hundreds of thousands of families. Of Mississippi’s 82 counties, eight receive over 40% in SNAP benefits each month and shockingly over half of Humphreys’ populace receive the benefit. One of the central contributing factors for the state’s high levels of food poverty is the large numbers of single-parent households (where the breadwinner is forced to juggle childcare and employment without the support of another person’s salary to help pay bills).
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