Why Is Food Stamp Usage Rising So Fast?

Robert Siegel speaks with John Davis, the director of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in Mississippi. He talks about the numbers and nature of recipients in his state. While the program is targeted at people who need help for a limited time period while they transition from unemployment back to employment, many people are using it indefinitely.

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The number of Americans who use food stamps is now close to 46 million, that's 15 percent of the population. The program is formally known as SNAP these days, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And the number of people who depend on it to buy groceries has grown substantially, even since the recession was officially declared over, back in June of 2009.

Why is food stamp use rising so fast? Well, we're going to ask John Davis who is director of the program in Mississippi. That's the state with the largest slice of its population using SNAP, 21 percent. Welcome to the program.

JOHN DAVIS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And I'll ask you about Mississippi. Why is it? Is it more people in need or more needy people knowing about what they can get?

DAVIS: Well, I think it's a combination of both. I mean, you know, the economic downturn of course is a contributing factor. And we know that from a historical standpoint anytime there is a decrease in the job availability, there's going to be an increase in our program.

SIEGEL: But it sounds like there are more people receiving food assistance in Mississippi than they are unemployed in Mississippi. Fair enough?

DAVIS: Well, that might be true but that's kind of a misnomer in the fact that we know that underemployment is just as important a contributing factor as the fact that there are unemployed.

SIEGEL: How much money does a family of four, say, on SNAP or food stamps get?

DAVIS: We're looking at a family of four, probably around $668 a month.

SIEGEL: $668 a month...

DAVIS: Correct.

SIEGEL: Or that would be, you know, roughly $150 a week.

DAVIS: Correct.

SIEGEL: You figure that can pretty well feed a family of four.

DAVIS: Well, I think I can certainly go a long way in helping the family. But this program is a supplemental program. It was never intended to fully fund the families on need for food. I mean, it's just a supplemental program.

SIEGEL: I was numbers from 2009, which broke down the national food stamp-receiving population by ethnicity. Just under 8 percent of white, non-Hispanic households receive stamps, then for African-Americans households it was tripled, just under 24 percent. And Hispanic households also had a very high rate, over 17 percent. Does that square generally with your sense of who's getting food assistance in Mississippi?

DAVIS: We don't keep those statistics here in the state, so I can't really speak to that.

SIEGEL: There was a lot of attention paid to the Gulf Coast during the summer of the BP oil spill in the Gulf and damage that it did to have, say, the fishing industry and to tourism. Do you feel that? Do you see that come up in numbers?

DAVIS: Yes. Yes, we did. We still report on that, as a matter of fact. We track those numbers and we find that there was an increase based on the oil spill. One thing, of course, we did outreach on the coast, in the coastal counties to ensure that individuals knew about the program. But another thing we had, industries that were either closed or that went into hibernation. So, therefore, it was just a ripple effect. If the fishermen were fishing, then there were other industries affected as well.

SIEGEL: When we heard these numbers were coming out and someone said let's talk to the state with, you know, the highest share of its population receiving food stamps, somehow naturally we all assumed, well, that's going to be somewhere in the South and probably on the Gulf Coast. It turned out to be Mississippi. Why is it were not surprised that Mississippi should have such a high rate?

DAVIS: Well, I mean, just traditionally or historically, I believe we know that the poverty rate in Mississippi is high. That's just a fact. And we know that we're not heavily industrialized as some of the other areas and we have a lot of rural population. Most of our counties are rural counties. We have no huge metropolitan areas, so those individuals when they're without jobs they're directly affected. So, Mississippi seems to come up on top there.

SIEGEL: And in this case, it means that the government is effectively is feeding one Mississippian in five, right now.

DAVIS: Oh well, that's what the statistics say.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Davis, thank you very much.

DAVIS: Appreciate you.

SIEGEL: That's John Davis who is the director of the SNAP program. SNAP is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It means people who receive food stamps. He's in charge in Mississippi.

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