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The New Economy

Even college grads are signing up for food stamps

By Taylor Barnes / July 14, 2009

People wait in line to apply for food stamps and other benefits in January at the Gwinnett County Department of Family and Children Services in Lawrenceville, Ga. As of April, a record number of Americans were on food stamps — over 34 million.

Zuma / Newscom / File

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Ben Rollins just earned an MBA from Cornell and a $20,000 grant to start a new business. For the first time in his life, he’s also on food stamps.

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He joins the growing legion of people – a record 1 in 9 Americans – who are signing up for the government benefit to help pay their monthly food bill. While the vast majority of the 33.8 million recipients (as of April) are families, poor seniors, and disabled individuals, an unlikely demographic group – recent college graduates – are signing up, too.

Mr. Rollins had been searching for a job since last fall and didn't find one, but he stopped looking when he and a doctoral student won his school’s business-plan competition to develop a regenerative contact lens. He’s spending the grant money to launch his business, not put food on the table for his wife and two sons. So he signed up for $700 a month in aid as he scouts for a part-time job to help pay the bills.

“We didn’t have the intention to [use food stamps] and our general thought was that we get by on our own,” he says. “But in this case I think it makes sense for us, because it will definitely be temporary.”

It's hard to prove that there's been a surge of recent college grads signing up for food stamps. The latest data – for fiscal 2007, before the recession – show that 457,000 recipients were in their 20s and had a degree or some college education, according to the Department of Agriculture. But the anecdotal evidence is piling up that more graduates are applying as jobs grow scarcer.

Normally, Paul Gibson would have taken an unpaid law internship this summer. But the first-year law student at the College of William and Mary in Willamsburg, Va., couldn’t afford it. By the end of the school year, he had maxed out his credit card to pay for a car repair and used his student loans to pay the balance, which left him eating the leftovers he found in his apartment. He says he could have taken a job during the school year, but he didn’t want his grades to suffer.

“I feel no shame about being on food stamps,” says Mr. Gibson, who gets about $200 a month. His part-time summer jobs researching with a professor and working at his school’s library pay $7.50 an hour, which meant that his earnings fell just below the $1,127 a month cutoff for assistance to a single adult. “The government put out this option to help people in my situation.”

Even before the recession, the low pay of public service and arts jobs meant that many college grads qualified for food stamps. (College students generally don't qualify.) A 2007 graduate in English from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., says it was common for the apprentices at her Louisville, Ky., theater to use food stamps.“There’s an exceptionally modest stipend we received” from the theater, says the former directing intern, who received about $160 in food stamps per month until April and asked not to be named. “It was not enough to live on.”

Many artists accept that their creative work won’t be able to pay the bills, but she adds that her friends in the theater community at Yale were “completely shocked” when she applied for benefits.

“I think that has to do in part with how stigmatized in this country” using food stamps is, she says.

Could the recession be changing this attitude about going on public assistance?

Not exactly, says Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy organization in Washington, D.C. “I think an economic downturn changes people’s need to go on public assistance.”

Both Gibson and Rollins say they could have found full-time jobs that would have put their income levels above the cutoff for food stamps. Mr. Gibson had already accepted part-time work when he got a full-time offer. Mr. Rollins, who expects not to need food stamps anymore when it comes time to apply again in six months, wants to develop his business plan while he has a grant, even though it will be a while before it brings in revenue.

“I figured I paid a lot of taxes beforehand and I’ll pay a lot of taxes later,” he says.

Taylor Barnes is a Monitor contributor.

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