The Reason a Record Number Are On Food Stamps

History Food Stamp Usage | Photo: usdagov/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Two facts:

1. The economy is recovering. There is little doubt about this. You can look at legitimate economic "tea leaves" like the stock market (both the Dow and the S&P broke record highs last week) or you can look at not-so-conventional harbingers of progress (the New York Times took a glass-half-empty approach by complaining about all the cars back on the streets now that people have jobs again). But the fact remains: The economy's getting better, more people are working, things are on the up-and-up.

2. More people than ever before are using food stamps. In December of last year, more than 47 million Americans -- right around 15% of our country's citizens -- were using food stamps. And that number seems to be only increasing.

To the average person, the two facts seem to contradict one another. Food stamps, as our basic understanding of them goes, should only be used by people who can't find jobs. And if the economy is recovering, if jobs are becoming plentiful, if high-rollers are once again throwing around their money, then fewer people should be using food stamps. Sure, there's bound to be some catching up that occurs as the positive economic news trickles down the average man. But numbers of people enrolled in the food stamp program should be falling instead of rising.

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To account for this cognitive dissonance, people start trying to come up with theories. The Wall Street Journal blames President Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare overhaul, saying the law "enabled states to ease asset and income tests for would-be participants, allowing into the program people with relatively higher incomes as well as savings." Anchors at Fox News throw out baseless hypotheticals that people are actually turning down jobs because they're better off on food stamps. Which is to say, any of the explanations thrown against the wall boil down to one mindset:

"People are taking advantage of the system! They must be stopped! These entitled bums are a drain on our economy! I'd love it if I didn't have to go to work and earn money to eat and just sit around like these lazy leaches! But I have dignity!"

However, as Jordan Weissman over at The Atlantic explains, that mentality loses sight of the real reason record numbers are on food stamps:

As Weismann explains, it's not hard to wonder why over 47 million Americans are using food stamps when nearly the same number live below the official poverty line. So while more people may be working, that doesn't automatically mean they earn enough to eat.

In 2010, about 87 percent of food stamp users were "at or below the poverty line and almost half were children." The number of people "taking advantage" of the system by being on food stamps when they don't need to be? A mere 3.5% of all users. And that's if you extend the "don't need to be" definition to those earning an income that's 130% of the poverty line. Seeing as the current poverty line is $11,945 a year for a single person, you're talking Rich Uncle Pennybags-esque folks bringing in a whopping $15,000 a year. Taking advantage, indeed!

In fact, rather than what the "conservative-minded" folks would have you believe, people earning their own income while still being on food stamps actually plays a big positive role in our economy:

So when folks at your cocktail hour start pointing to the two seemingly contradictory facts as evidence that the system needs to be reworked, that the lazy bums need to stop being such a drain on our economy, feel free to call out that mentality for what it truly is: ignorance.

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