Who gets food stamps? More are college grads; half are working age.

Working-age people are now the majority recipients of food stamps, replacing children and seniors as the traditional primary beneficiaries, a new analysis shows. Federal spending on food stamps has doubled since 2008.

Tamir Kalifa/AP
Maggie Barcellano, a food stamps enrollee, sat down for dinner with her daughter, Zoe, in Austin, Texas, this month. Ms. Barcellano is emblematic of new data showing that working-age people now make up the majority of households that rely on food stamps, a shift from a few years ago when children and the elderly were the main recipients.

Working-age people are now the majority recipients of food stamps, overtaking the share who are children and seniors, the traditional beneficiaries of the program, according to a new analysis from The Associated Press and University of Kentucky economists. At the same time, the demographics of the food-assistance program have shifted enormously over the past three decades to include more college graduates, the report also found.

The analysis identified multiple causes for the demographic shifts in the program’s enrollees, including overall changes in the US population, but it spotlighted the role that rising inflation and stalled wage growth have played in leaving more people under the poverty line.

The report comes as Democrats in Washington, in particular, are pushing income inequality as a hot-button issue, noting that most of the income gains since the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009 have come at the top of the income ladder. President Obama’s State of the Union message on Tuesday is expected to follow a theme similar to last year's message, in which he promised to make it a priority to narrow the income gap between the rich and the poor. Tuesday's address, though, is expected to be even more urgent this time around, as Congress weighs a bill that would over 10 years shave about $9 billion from food stamps funding, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. 

The new report shows that 50.2 percent of US households receiving food stamps since 2009 are made up of adults between the ages of 18 and 59 (or nonelderly, working-age adults). In 1998, the portion of such households getting food stamps was 44 percent, according to the report.

In addition, the findings show that the percentage of food stamp households headed by someone with a four-year college degree has increased from about 3 percent to 5 percent since 1980, and the share of beneficiaries who have at least some college training has leaped from 8 percent to about 28 percent. Households headed by adults with at least a high school diploma have jumped from 9 percent of food stamp recipients to about 37 percent over the past three decades, the report says. Thirty years ago households headed by high school dropouts accounted for the biggest chunk of food stamp recipients; now they account for about 28 percent of enrollees in the program.

The analysis notes that inflation has in recent years outstripped increases in average wages in the United States, suggesting that a job does not guarantee insurance against hunger. 

Even as average weekly earnings in the US rose from $768 in 2012 to $776 in 2013, rising inflation means that the 2013 earnings were equivalent to $2 less per week than the 2012 earnings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The US minimum wage has also remained at $7.25 per hour since June 2009, even as inflation has bounded ahead. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats are pressing for a $10.10 federal minimum wage, but many Republicans are resisting the idea on grounds it will depress job creation and slow the already-tepid economy.

More Americans are now on food stamps than at almost any other time in the past decade. In fiscal year 2006, about 26,000 people were enrolled in the program. As of July, after a whiplash of a recession, almost 48 million people, or about a seventh of the US population, are participating. At the same time, federal spending on the program has almost doubled since 2008, running the government a tab of $80 billion in 2013, according to the AP.

That tab has two interpretations in the US capital: It's evidence of burgeoning need, or it's evidence of abuse and waste.

Congress is now mulling over a compromise version of the farm bill – which outlines government spending on a number of agricultural and nutritional areas – that would whittle about $9 billion from the food stamps program over the next 10 years. The Republican-controlled House has signaled that it will not pass a bill that cuts any less than $40 billion from the program over the same period; Obama has said he will veto any bill that slices too much from the program, and Senate Democrats are pressing for a bill that cuts about $4 billion over a decade from food stamps.

In the current fiscal year, SNAP funding is flat, after four years of increase. Congress's decision not to extend the increase means about $5 billion less for the program this year. For a family of four receiving a maximum food stamps allotment, benefits fell from $668 to $632 per month, according to the Department of Agriculture.

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