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Fifteen Percent of Americans Use Food Stamps

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Big Family Dinner | Photo: USDAgov/Flickr/Creative Commons License

For most of us, the use of food stamps has always been a bit removed from our day-to-day lives. While many of us see the alerts at grocery store check-outs letting customers know that EBT is accepted, or window signs detailing just what can and cannot be purchased on the government's dime, that's about as close as most of us have been. In our heads we don't have to worry about them because they're for "those poor people on Skid Row" or in some other neighborhood, certainly not your friends or family, and what strangers do with them has very little impact on your own well-being. But in today's financial climate, that's a mindset that's in need of a drastic change.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new stats about just how many Americans are currently using food stamps, and the results are eye-opening:

Throughout the 2012 calendar year, a monthly average of 46,609,072 people used the program. That's not a typo, and 46 million is a record for monthly usage over a year's span.

And if you're hoping those numbers are front-loaded into the data, that the enormous number is due to a particularly rough first few months, think again: December 2012, a mere three months ago, was actually the biggest month of the year, seeing a record-setting 47,791,996 people using food stamps. According to the breakdown by the USDA, that number includes over 22 million households. Stick those numbers on the right side of the division symbol, with the country's population of 314 million on the other, and that means that 14.8% of Americans use food stamps. Or, seeing as we're rounding, just about 15%.

Let me put it another way: If you're an "average" Facebook user, you have 190 friends. If your profile is a random sampling of Americans, than of those 190 friends, 30 of them are on food stamps.

Which is to say: Yikes.

(Hitting a bit closer to home, while Texas is leading the country on a state-by-state basis, California is close behind in second place with nearly four million using food stamps. And if you want to take the "California's population is huge, so it's not really that bad here" stance, consider that if four million of the state's population of 38 million uses food stamps, that's still a tad over 10% usage. One in ten is certainly not an insignificant number.)

But enough with the numbers. What does this all mean?

It means food stamps are no longer something only for a select number of "poor" families to worry about, and that the rest of us are insulated from food stamp-related problems; when you're dealing with these levels of numbers, it affects us all. So any news regarding SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new moniker for the food stamp program) is no longer something to scan past on your Google Reader feed, assuming the ramifications of whatever's being discussed won't find its way into your circle. Instead, the new stats from the USDA prove that it's something we all need to pay attention to.

Take, for instance, this recent story about how children using food stamps have diets "high in processed meats, saturated fat and sugary drinks and low in whole grains and fruits and vegetables," all things that lead to increasingly high rates of childhood obesity. No longer are these children in the report simply faceless masses on the other side of the tracks. They are your paperboys, your babysitters, your neighborhood pack of kids, your child's best friends.

Food stamps are no longer for "them." They're for "us."

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