NPR logo A Grim Record: One In Seven Americans Is On Food Stamps


A Grim Record: One In Seven Americans Is On Food Stamps

The number of people on food stamps keeps hitting new all-time highs; as of September, nearly 43 million people were using the program, according to figures out this week.

Of course, because of population growth, absolute numbers only tell part of the story. The best way to look at the numbers over a long period of time is as a percentage of the population. And when you do that, you see that we're also hitting new highs.

Food Stamps
Jess Jiang

The criteria for qualifying for food stamps haven't changed much over time, according to Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the government agency that oversees the food-stamp program (the program is officially known as SNAP, by the way).

Congress monkeys with the criteria a little bit now and then, but the basic rules are the same: People need to be at 130 percent of the poverty level or lower, Daniel said. For a family of four, that's an income of just under $29,000, according to government guidelines. There are also limits on liquid assets — investments, money in the bank, that sort of thing.

Over the years, you see the number of people in the program rise and fall along with broader economic cycles. But the uptick this time is much more dramatic.

"What we're seeing this time is quite a few people who are new to the program, who never before in their lifetime expected to take advantage of any government program," Daniel told me.