MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Critics of the nation's food stamp program have been alarmed in recent years by the program's rapid growth. Last year, about 1 in 7 people in the U.S. received food stamp benefits. But now as the economic recovery has begun to reach more low-income households, those numbers are dropping. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The decline started last fall after hovering at around 48 million for about a year, the number of people receiving food stamps - or SNAP benefits, as they're called - started to go down. By February, 1.6 million fewer people were on the roles than at the peak back in 2012.
DOROTHY ROSENBAUM: It's really showing that the program is doing what it's assigned to do.
FESSLER: Dorothy Rosenbaum is with the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
ROSENBAUM: It expanded when the economy was weak and when unemployment was on the rise. And now as the economy is improving, it's starting to decline.
FESSLER: Just as her group and others have predicted. And while it could take months to figure all the reasons for the decline, Rosenbaum says the trend is strong. Caseloads are falling in 47 states and she anticipates that will continue as more and more people find work and better paying jobs.
KATJE HOPKINS: I was able to find a new job where I was making more money with a few more hours.
FESSLER: Katje Hopkins of Portland, Oregon started getting food stamps last year with her husband and newborn child. That's because her hours at a luxury car dealership had been cut. But she says they recently stopped receiving the aid because their economic situation improved. Not only does she have a better job, her husband got a raise at the hardware store where he's assistant manager. Still, Hopkins says the $150 a month in food stamps was a big help when they needed it.
HOPKINS: It took care of about two weeks' worth of groceries out of the month. And we were eating a lot at the time. I was nursing my son and so my appetite had skyrocketed. And so it really helped us get through that rough spot.
FESSLER: Although Hopkins did notice in November that her benefits dropped about $30 a month. That was because of a big change in the program. On November 1, all food stamp recipients got their food stamps cut when Congress failed to extend an increase approved during the recession. And that, along with declining enrollment, is making a big dent in the bottom line. The food stamp program now cost taxpayers about half a billion dollars less a month than it did last year. Michael Tanner of the Libertarian Cato Institute thinks that's good, but not great, news.
MICHAEL TANNER: I think we shouldn't get too excited over short-term trends, up or down. What we need to do is look at the long-term projections.
FESSLER: And he notes that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts that food stamp spending will still be high about a decade from now, about $71 billion a year.
TANNER: We expected some decline. We're seeing that. The problem is we don't go back to prerecession levels.
FESSLER: He and many Republicans complain that the program has grown out of control. In part because many states waived work requirements for recipients during the recession. There's also been an aggressive effort by the government to sign up everyone who's eligible for help. Even so, Dorothy Rosenbaum says only 79 percent of those eligible get food stamps. She thinks that's another reason enrollment is down - as monthly benefits drop, some people might decide it's not worth the trouble applying. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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