September 17, 2004

Over 50% of U.S. May Use Food Stamps

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A study examining the socioeconomic status of the U.S. population recently concluded that more than half of all Americans between the ages of 20 and 65 will use food stamps at least once in their lives.

One of the researchers, Cornell Prof. Thomas Hirschl, development sociology, described reactions to this study, “Many people don’t believe its results. People have accused me, ‘You’ve made this up!'”

The other researcher, Washington University professor of social work Mark Rank, said, “The typical image has been that the use of a welfare program, such as food stamps, occurs to someone else. It turns out, it will occur to over fifty percent of Americans.” Rank is also the author of a recent book titled One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All.

“My book presents the argument that we really need to think differently about the issue of poverty in America,” Rank said. “Rather than poverty affecting someone else, it affects all of society.”

The study indicates that food stamp use has a significant link to factors such as race and education. According to its conclusions, over 85 percent of African Americans will use food stamps between the ages of 20 and 65, in comparison to 37 percent of white Americans. Sixty-four percent of adults with less than 12 years of education will use food stamps, in comparison to 38 percent of adults with 12 or more years of education.

The researchers also found that about 25 percent of white males with 12 or more years of education will use food stamps, while more than 90 percent of African American females with less than 12 years of education will use food stamps some time between ages 20 and 65. “The study itself is really important because it shows for the first time the fact that a majority of Americans will turn to the food stamp program for emergency assistance, and that at least 42 percent of adult Americans will experience food insecurity,” Rank said. “This includes things like hunger, reducing the size of meals, not being able to afford three meals a day, and so on.”

When asked what the study’s findings indicated, Hirschl said, “Food is cheap. It says a lot when that many people need financial assistance at some point in their lives. This issue is about the ability of the US economy to provide the basics such as water, food, shelter, and medical care.”

How can this situation be improved? Hirschl answered, “This is off the radar of the federal government. They’re not going to move on it. There needs to be change to the economic structure of America to directly address this issue. There needs to be more discussion about restructuring society to fulfill its basic needs.”

When asked the same question, Rank referred to his book, suggesting that we “creat[e] jobs that pay a living wage, provid[e] essential public and social goods, hav[e] policies that build individual and community assets, and hav[e] a reasonable safety net in place.”

Half of those Americans eligible for food stamps actually get them. Studies suggest that those eligible do not participate because they are unfamiliar with the application process. Others, Rank and Hirschl said, are reluctant to participate because of the “sense of stigma attached to participating in a means-tested welfare program.” In fiscal year 2003, government statistics show, about 21 million Americans received food stamps at a program cost of about $21 billion.

“While the use of food stamps is often brief, of those who have used food stamps once, about three-quarters will use them again in a different year,” said Hirschl. “These findings are in sharp contrast to the belief that the use of the nation’s food nutrition safety net is something that happens to someone else and is atypical of the American experience.” The study’s results may also have a broader impact on the health of Americans today. Rank said, “The patterns that emerged from our analysis are particularly troubling in light of the fact that food insecurity has been shown to be closely related to various health problems, including an increased risk in the development of chronic diseases, impairment of psychological and cognitive functioning among children and a greater likelihood of self-reporting health status as poor.”

In order to conduct the study, the researchers used thirty waves from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics data set, in particular looking at data for the years 1968 to 1997. 4,800 families have participated in this data collection since 1968.

The method of conducting this study is different from what has typically been used to study socioeconomic patterns. The study states, “Rather than focusing on cross-sectional participation rates, or the modeling of spell dynamics, we utilize a procedure that allows us to estimate the life course probabilities and patterns of food stamp use for the United states population … Our analytical strategy is to use the household and demographic information on individuals throughout this 30-year period in order to construct a series of life tables that estimate the risk of food stamp use across the life course. The life table examines the extent to which specific events occur across intervals of time.”

The study’s findings were presented at the annual meeting for the Society for Nutrition Education in Philadelphia in last summer. This study will be published in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.