Food-stamp use climbs to record, reviving campaign issue

WASHINGTON — Food-stamp use reached a record 46.7 million people in June, the government said Tuesday, as Democrats prepare to nominate President Barack Obama for a second term with the economy as a chief issue in the campaign.

Participation was up 0.4 percent from May and 3.3 percent higher than a year earlier and has remained greater than 46 million all year as the unemployment rate stayed higher than 8 percent. New jobless numbers will be released Sept. 7.

“Too many middle-class families who have fallen on hard times are still struggling,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Our goal is to get these families the temporary assistance they need so they are able to get through these tough times and back on their feet as soon as possible.”

Food-stamp spending, which more than doubled in four years to a record $75.7 billion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011, is the Department of Agriulture’s biggest annual expense. Republicans in Congress have criticized the cost of the program, and the House budget plan approved in April sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s vice- presidential nominee, would cut expenses by $33 billion over 10 years.

“We need a new direction,” Amanda Henneberg, a spokeswoman for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said in an email. “Democrats are desperately trying to convince voters that they are better off than they were four years ago. But the opposite is true,” as evidenced by the food- stamp numbers, she said.

Reductions to the program have also emerged as a point of contention in debate over a farm bill to replace current law that expires Sept. 30. The Senate in June passed a plan that would lower expenditures by $4 billion over 10 years, while the House Agriculture Committee the following month backed a $16 billion cut.

During the Republican primary campaign, then-candidate Newt Gingrich labeled Obama as “the best food-stamp president in American history.” When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called his statements “inaccurate” and “divisive,” Gingrich dismissed the complaints as a smear from “modern liberals” who are “off the deep end.”

Food-stamp enrollment is rising partly because the USDA is pushing higher participation too aggressively, giving government money to people who may not need or want it, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in a telephone interview.

“This administration has been hawking food stamps,” said Sessions, who has called for lower spending on the program. “Every additional dollar in this program is borrowed money,” he said. “It’s one more example of government incompetence.”

Tuesday’s report shows the two most populous states, California and Texas, had the most recipients. California was tops with 4.012 million, a 0.8 percent gain from the previous month and 7.3 percent more than the previous year. Texas was in second place, while down 0.4 percent from the previous month and 1.4 percent lower than a year earlier.

Louisiana and North Carolina, where Democrats are meeting this week to nominate Obama, had the biggest monthly gains in enrollment, 1.3 percent. Enrollment fell the most in Utah, down 1.4 percent from May, followed by Idaho and Ohio.

Spending on what’s officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program totaled $6.21 billion in June, 0.4 percent higher than the previous month and 2.8 percent more than a year earlier. The record is $6.26 billion spent in September 2011.

About 47 percent of recipients are children, and 8 percent are elderly, according to the USDA. About half of all new recipients leave the program within 10 months.

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