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The growing number of hungry Americans that depend on the food stamp program may be fixing the economy. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of Americans requesting food stamps rose to an all-time high of 45.8 million people.
The government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps, provides benefits to low-income individuals and families each month. Recipients can use these funds, like one would a debit card, at stores that accept SNAP benefits.
In order to qualify for the program, an individual’s income can’t exceed $1,174 a month or $14,088 a year. CNNMoney reported the average food stamp benefit was $133.80 per person and $283.65 per household in May 2011.
National Public Radio reported that the need for food stamps is likely to continue to rise. Even though the economy has been improving since 2009, it’s been such slow growth that it can’t absorb the nearly 14 million who are unemployed. Currently the highest need for food stamps are in the states of California, Texas and New York.
While the food stamp program is a vital service to many Americans, it comes at a steep price – it cost taxpayers $68 billion last year.
Many economists say the program is worth the money because it helps stimulate the economy. Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, head of the National Bureau of Economic Research, said the “fastest way to infuse money into the economy is through expanding the ‘food-stamp’ program.”
A recent study by the N.C. Budget and Tax Center estimated that $1.6 billion in food assistance distributed to residents in North Carolina, resulted in $2.8 billion in economic activity. “When a person spends food assistance money at a local grocery store, that is a sale the store may not have had otherwise,” said John Quinterno, research associate at the center. “Then, that money gets turned over several times, generating economic activity.”
President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, referred to the food stamp program as a “stimulus” itself. The Agriculture Department estimates every dollar in food stamps expands the economy by $1.84.
“If people are able to buy a little more in the grocery store, someone has to stock it, package it, shelve it, process it, ship it,” Vilsack said. “All of those are jobs. It’s the most direct stimulus you can get in the economy during these tough times.”
Still, there are other opinions on the best way to improve the poor U.S. economy. Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary, disagreed with Vilsack’s support of the food stamp program. Carney said unemployment checks are the most effective tactic. “There are few other ways that can directly put money into the economy than applying unemployment insurance,” said Carney.
There is still debate over whether the food stamp program truly helps the economy. There is no debate, however, on the fact that people are seeking out the service in record numbers.