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Recession officially over, use of food stamps stays at record high

Increased need and eased eligibility requirements are reasons use of food stamps remains high. A food stamp 'debit card' reduces the stigma, too.

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / October 26, 2010

Cashier Liliana Romero accepts a SNAP card from a customer at Tesoro Supermarket in Framingham, Mass. These food stamp debit cards are used by 41.8 million people each month, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Melanie Stetson Freeman /Staff

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Rochester, N.Y.

Before the recession, Mary Ellen Hayden was living an active New York City life. She worked days at a corporate job, nights as a professional singer, taught as a substitute on occasion – and all as she was finishing her certification in secondary English education.

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Then the recession hit and Ms. Hayden found herself out of a job and living on a shoestring budget in the most expensive city in the US.

"Things were drying up left and right," says Hayden, who had completed her bachelor's and master's degrees at private universities in the Northeast.

When a friend told her she could qualify for food stamps, she hesitated, but not for long.

"I was surprised it existed for me," says Hayden, who moved recently to more-affordable Rochester, N.Y. "And embarrassed because I'd never done it before. You think, 'Oh my gosh, I hope no one sees me.' It's a humbling experience for someone who's never been on it before."

The recession introduced millions of Americans to food stamps – many of them, like Hayden, for the first time. Now, more than a year after the recession is officially said to have ended, more Americans than ever are on food stamps, and the trend is higher still.

The obvious question is, why?

According to Dawn Secor, a food stamp specialist with the Nutrition Consortium, an antihunger nonprofit in Albany, N.Y., it was a combination of increased need and easier access.

Less of a stigma

Not only did the recession boost the number of people who qualify for food stamps because of layoffs and reduced incomes, says Ms. Secor, the ensuing Recovery Act increased food stamp benefits, provided states with extra funding for administering the program, and, most important, eased requirements and access, making many more Americans eligible.

The recession also erased some of the stigma associated with social services, says Susan Segelman, a Rochester-area nutrition outreach counselor. "Food stamps have become more acceptable," says Ms. Segelman. "Times are tough for everyone.… People aren't embarrassed to call, to apply."

According to the Department of Agriculture, about 41.8 million people, more than 1 in 8 Americans, use food stamps each month.

"The numbers of people utilizing the program are historical," says Secor. "It's more people than we've ever seen participate in the food stamp program.… We're struggling to keep up."

The first food stamp program in America began here in Rochester in 1939, during the Great Depression. Over the next 70 years, the program was alternately aborted, revived, cut, and expanded. Today the food stamp program – now officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – is a $60 billion safety net enjoying renewed support as a crutch that can expand and contract with the country's needs.

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