Who Makes Up The 16 Million Households Who Get Food Stamps?

Close to 16 million American households — nearly 14 percent of households — receive food stamps. Who are they and how would a cut affect them? Robert Siegel puts those questions to Stacy Dean from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, more on the SNAP program. Close to 16 million American households, nearly 14 percent of households, receive food stamps. That's 48 million Americans. Who are they and how would a cut affect them? Well, we're going to put those questions to Stacy Dean at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Welcome to the program.

STACY DEAN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: What does that population look like? Who are those 48 million Americans?

DEAN: Well, the 48 million Americans are just low-income Americans and poverty really doesn't discriminate. The program serves seniors, people with disabilities, workers, those who are unemployed and what is a surprise to many is children. Nearly half of the program's participants are children.

SIEGEL: Yes. According to the census, a little under a third of all American households have a child under 18 in the household. But when you compare that to the households receiving food stamps, it's the majority. It's 54 percent have a child under 18 in the household.

DEAN: That's right. That's one of the most notable things about the program. It really is our country's most powerful child nutrition program. In Mississippi, over 40 percent of the state's children rely on SNAP each day to put food on the table.

SIEGEL: I looked at a census breakdown of people who use food stamps and the population at large. The food stamp population, much more likely to be disabled, more likely to be black or Latino than white.

DEAN: That's right and that's very consistent, again, with the population of individuals who live below the poverty line. That also includes individuals who are homeless, veterans and many, many workers.

SIEGEL: Well, if this is a cut in the amount of money to be spent on food stamps, not an elimination of the program, who would likely be dropped from that population of food stamp recipients?

DEAN: Well, the House Republican proposal targets about four million individuals to be removed from the program. About half of those are unemployed workers. The notion is that apparently there is an abundance of jobs and some individuals are avoiding work by participating in the food stamp program. I don't think anyone really buys into that, but the notion is that individuals who aren't working, by terminating their food assistance, would be compelled to work. Even if...

SIEGEL: Well, Congressman Sessions of Texas buys into it. He thinks that people would be inspired to work if they didn't get food stamps.

DEAN: Well, I think the issue, though, is that there is an absence of jobs. And many, many participants on the program do work. They have to combine their wages with the benefits of the program in order to put food on the table each day.

SIEGEL: Are there now conditions, that is, conditions to receive food stamps, that you have to show up looking for work or that you have to do some community service? I gather that's a proposal in some states.

DEAN: The way the program works right now is that any able-bodied individual who can work needs to register and be willing to accept work and those who are working can't quit their jobs voluntarily. States can compel individuals who are not working to enroll in job training programs or workfare, community service, as you put it, as a condition of participating in their SNAP program.

But what the House Republican proposal says is that individuals who aren't working must work. So if you're unemployed and you are unable to find a job, your food assistance could be terminated. And that's not the case now.

SIEGEL: This is a benefit that people can only use to buy food. It's restricted and it means that ultimately the money that goes to the food stamp recipient goes to a grocer or a supermarket. First, is there a risk here of creating still more food deserts if there aren't more consumer dollars there? And are the supermarkets, are they supporters of the program?

DEAN: Oh, absolutely. We have around 200,000 grocery stores, retailers, farmers markets that participate in the program. The largest redeemer of SNAP benefits or food stamp benefits is Wal-Mart. You know, they speak very powerfully on the program. Other smaller retailers, mom and pop shops in rural America or in very high poverty areas, a huge share of their customers need to use SNAP benefits in order to put food on the table every day. So a cut to those individuals will be a cut to business and businesses.

SIEGEL: Stacy Dean, thank you very much for talking with us today.

DEAN: Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

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