Despite decreased unemployment, food stamp use at record levels

About 45.4 million Americans received aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) last October despite a 5 percent national unemployment rate.

During the 2007-2009 recession, state and federal governments actively encouraged people to take advantage of the program, assuming that enrollment in SNAP would fall sharply when employment levels rose. Now, enrollment remains near record levels, even as joblessness has fallen by half, and annual spending for the program has more than doubled in five years to a record $76.1 billion in 2013.

Even though eligibility rules remained unchanged during the recession, governments made it easier to sign up for the program. And now, uneven recovery has swelled the ranks of long-term unemployed and reduced the number of people working or looking for work, further boosting demand. Even for those with jobs, pay may be lower than in the past: In real dollars, SNAP recipients in 2014 had net incomes of $335 a month, the lowest since at least 1989.

Economists and SNAP leaders say another economic downturn could send program costs to new heights, and efforts to rein in the program in Congress have found little success.

Read more: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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