Record Number Receive Food Stamps

One in nine Americans receive government assistance to buy food, which amounts to 34 million people receiving food stamps. Democratic Congressman James Mcgovern of Massachusetts and Damond Smart from Elkhart, Indiana, a city hard-hit by the recession, talk about the food stamps program.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today we'll check in on a number of issues that have plagued decision makers for sometime, but that had been exacerbated by the recession. California gets an ultimatum to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. But did it come too late to stop this weekend's bloody riots? And how is the recession affecting diversity in our field, the media? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, are Americans going hungry? A new record was set last week, but it may not be one of which to be proud. For the first time in U.S. history more than 34 million Americans received food stamps. That information came from May.

Just to put that in perspective, that means one in nine Americans received government help to buy groceries. It's yet another symptom of the worst economic recession to hit the country since The Great Depression. But what does it mean for those participating in the program? To find out we called Damond Smart from Elkhart, Indiana. That town has been in the news for its soaring unemployment rate, which reached 16.8 percent in June.

Elkhart has become such a symbol of the recession that President Obama has visited the town twice to call attention to his efforts to revive the economy. And we've been checking in Damond, who lives in Elkhart to get his take on how things are going. He works at a beauty supply company, and he also designs T-shirts to help make ends meet and he started receiving food stamps last month. Also joining us is Democratic Congressman James McGovern from Massachusetts. Back in 2007, he was one of a group of members of Congress and some journalists, who participated in the Food Stamp Challenge where he and his wife ate only what they would have been able to afford with food stamps for a week. Welcome back to both of you. Thank you for joining us.

Representative JAMES MCGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts): Thank you.

Mr. DAMOND SMART: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Damond, we spoke to you back in February when President Obama stopped by Elkhart to talk about his economic stimulus plan and you told us how things were going and what the atmosphere was like. How are things now?

Mr. SMART: I think things are getting worst because people are trying to survive and there's not a lot of opportunity out here for a lot of people. I think it's opportunity lost and people are trying to feed their family and they're doing it by all means necessary.

MARTIN: You, as I mentioned, you enrolled in the food stamp program last month. What prompted that decision?

Mr. SMART: Job, the job. There's not a lot of opportunities out. The job opportunity are low. I've filled out at least 100 applications and I'm very qualified for a lot of jobs. I've been in retail for like eight, nine years and I call, I call, I call and there's not a lot of opportunities. So I had to go and get food stamps to try to help provide for my family.

MARTIN: But is it that your hours have been cut or you're just not making enough to make ends meet with the job that you already have?

Mr. SMART: Yes, hours are short and people are not shopping. Even at the Elkhart Beauty Supply, people used to come in at an alarming rate and they have slowed down dramatically.

MARTIN: And Congressman McGovern, what are you hearing from your constituents, particularly about this issue of food stamps? Are you seeing an increase in enrollment in your area?

Rep. McGOVERN: Yes, we are. I mean, look, there's no question about it. Things are pretty tough out there. You know, this is one of the worst economies we've had since The Great Depression. And the president has been trying to dig us out of this ditch, you know, ever since he was sworn into office. And the Recovery and Reinvestment Act that he passed, hopefully, will provide some stimulus that will at least stop the hemorrhaging but hopefully move the economy in a different direction.

But in that, he also included additional assistance for food stamps or SNAP, what they call it now and other nutrition programs. But more and more working families are applying for food stamps because, you know, they don't have the purchasing power to be able to put good nutritious food on the kitchen table for their families.

MARTIN: And when you went on the Food Stamp Challenge, congressman, as I recall, one of the things you were trying to figure out for yourself is whether the benefit levels needed to be adjusted. And if you were just - I know it's been a while…

Rep. McGOVERN: Right.

MARTIN: …but just remind us what it was like to try to shop and get enough groceries for you and you wife.

Rep. McGOVERN: Well, back then the average food stamp benefit per person was about $3 a day, $21 a week. And it's almost impossible to be able to make sure you have enough food for the week or at least nutritious food for the week on that kind of benefit. Back then we were trying to call attention to the inadequacy of the benefit because the Farm Bill was coming up, and we wanted to increase investments in food and nutrition programs, which we did.

Over $9 billion in new investments in food and nutrition were included in that Farm Bill. And so the average food stamp benefit has gone from, you know, $3 a day to $4.50 a day. Not much, but nonetheless a little bit of an increase.

Look, we're the richest, most powerful country on the planet, you know, and I'm somebody who believes that food should be a right, and not just any food but nutritious food. And we need to figure out a way in the short term to make sure people have the necessary nutritious food they need for them and their families and I also add nutritious as well as food.

But the other thing is, we need to get this economy going so that people's purchasing power can be expanded and they could buy their own food.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the record number of Americans on food stamps that figures now at 34 million Americans or one in nine. We're speaking with Congressman James McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts and Damond Smart from Elkhart, Indiana. We've been checking in with Damond from time to time to find out how things are going at Elkhart. President Obama has visited his town twice to talk about the economy and how things are going. Damond, how was it to enroll in the program? Was it hard?

Mr. SMART: It was pretty simple. I had help. I had got it from people who tried to help me, you know, enroll because I didn't know that I can accept food stamps and a lot of people don't know that you can go and get help. You just have to explore it and be, you know, really prompt about what you're doing in life.

MARTIN: And is it making a difference? Are you able to - are your eating habits improving, for example? Are you able to, for example, to buy enough food to last you for the month?

Mr. SMART: Yes, I would say the month but we stretch. We stretch and we buy food. I mean, you had to stretch out for the month. But, really, it's just enough help. It's just enough help for me and my family right now. I mean it's just making ends meet, that's end to end.

MARTIN: And can I just ask you, was it - were you, before you - and forgive me, I don't want to be in your business. But before you were able to get into the program, were you able to get enough food to last you through the end of the month? Or were you having to go to family members, for example, for help or food banks or things of that sort?

Mr. SMART: Family, ex-family helped me a lot. And there's a lot of deaths and stuff going on around. There's a lot of people getting murdered. And there's a lot going on around, so the family has kind of step in there before I have to go and result to any of those other things because they just want to help me. You know, it's hard around here for everyone.

MARTIN: When I'm hearing you saying it it's kind of tense that people -you get a sense of people feeling like they are on the edge. Is that what I'm hearing?

Mr. SMART: Yes, there's a lot of people on the edge because I think that the opportunity around Elkhart and the opportunity that people (unintelligible) of the stereotypes you give people. You know, a lot of people in Elkhart have records. You know, and the problem sometimes -the problem is (unintelligible) and get a job. And, you know, sort of results to the next best thing, whatever it takes to get food on the table. You know, as bad as that sound, people are doing whatever it takes to feed their family and they're doing it by all means necessary.

MARTIN: Congressman McGovern, one thing that Damond pointed out I wanted to ask you about, he was saying that lot of people - that he wasn't even sure he was eligible at first.

Rep. McGOVERN: Right.

MARTIN: Are you finding that to be true that a lot of people are - even though the number, it seems like a big number…

Rep. McGOVERN: Right.

MARTIN: …that there a lot of people who still aren't sure, aware that they're eligible?

Rep. McGOVERN: Right. There are a lot of people out there who are eligible who probably haven't taken advantage of the program yet because they think because they have a job that somehow that would disqualify them for being eligible for food stamps.

Let me point out one other kind of problem we're finding here and that is because more and more people are eligible and are, you know, trying to enroll and state budgets are being cut back, and the states kind of processed the whole program even though the federal government provides most of the money. But because they're being short staffed that is taking them, in some parts of the country, up to 57 days between the time somebody applies and between the time that they're told they're either qualified or that they're denied.

So, as more and more become eligible and more and more people applied, the waiting time is expanding and expanding. And, you know, 57 days is a long time to go without a benefit to be able to put food on the table. So, you know, we're trying to expand awareness on one hand which we need to do but we also need to figure out a way to address this waiting period.

MARTIN: And, congressman, can I just ask, how do you interpret that figure that I've cited a couple of times that one in nine Americans has received food stamps, at least they did in May? Do you interpret that as a sign that the safety net is working or do you say - how do you see that figure?

Rep. MCGOVERN: Well, you know, the food stamp program or SNAP is the safety net. And I think it's there and it's important that it's there because without it a lot of people would literally be going without food. But I have to tell you, when I look at the fact that, you know, we have 34 million people that are now enrolled in this program it tells me that this economy has failed. And that there are 34 million people out there, you know, not knowing whether they could put food on the table. Look, it points to a larger problem we've in this country of hunger, which is something we need to address. I mean I'm ashamed, as a United States congressman, that anyone in this country is hungry yet we don't - there's not a single community in America that is hunger free.

So, yes at one hand we can point to the fact that this is a program that is providing a benefit to people in need. And I guess that's a good thing. On the other hand, you know, it points out that this economy is in deep trouble and we need to do what we can to help try to turn this around, so there are more good paying jobs and people's purchasing power can be expanded.

MARTIN: Damond, final thoughts from you. And I appreciate your being willing to let us check in with you from time to time. Can I ask how are your spirits?

Mr. SMART: My spirits are great. I'm like a motivator. You know, I don't have any kids. And I'm out trying to do whatever I can. Like I said, I'm very qualified for jobs. I'm a very outspoken person. I'm ready to go and work. I needed another job, you know, to provide. I'm thinking that no food, no money equals more chaos. And I don't know how to say that. And I don't - I don't know how to bring that out more but we do need help and a lot of my family is suffering from this right now. And I hope someone does something immediately because it's getting worse.

MARTIN: Do you think you get the sense that things are getting better at all? I mean, there was some information last week that suggest that maybe the hemorrhaging in jobs has stopped. But you're telling us people still aren't hiring. Do you have any sense that things are getting better?

Mr. SMART: I live in the inner city and I see things that most people wouldn't. I mean, yeah, you look at the TV and stereotype or whatever, but I see things that a lot of people do not. And I don't think it's going to change at all on my end…

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. SMART: …unless people get more opportunity, unless they bring more opportunities to people.

MARTIN: Okay, we have to leave it there for now, Damond. I apologize. We'll keep checking back in with you. Damond Smart lives in Elkhart, Indiana. He works at the Elkhart Beauty Supply. And he also designs T-shirts and he joined us by phone from his home. We were also joined by Congressman James McGovern. He's a Democrat. He represents Massachusetts third district. And he was kind enough to join us from his office in Worcester. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rep. MCGOVERN: Thank you.

Mr. SMART: Thank you.

You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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