About 6 million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data.
CAPE CORAL, Fla. — After rising from the Bronx projects to a job selling Gulf Coast homes, Isabel Bermudez lost it all to an epic housing bust: the six-figure income, the house with the pool and the investment property.
Now, as she sends out résumés and girds herself for rejection, she is supporting two daughters on an income that inspires a double-take: zero dollars in monthly cash and a few hundred dollars in food stamps.
With food-stamp use at a record high and surging by the day, Bermudez belongs to an overlooked subgroup that is growing especially fast: recipients with no cash income.
About 6 million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, these people described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid: no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay. Their numbers were rising before the recession as tougher welfare laws made it harder for poor people to get cash aid, but they have soared by about 50 percent in the past two years. About one in 50 Americans lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.
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“It’s the one thing I can count on every month; I know the children are going to have food,” Bermudez, 42, said with the forced good cheer she mastered selling rows of new stucco homes.
Members of this straitened group range from displaced strivers like Bermudez to weathered men who sleep in shelters and barter cigarettes. Some draw on savings or sporadic under-the-table jobs. Some move in with relatives. Some get noncash help, such as subsidized apartments. While some go without cash incomes only briefly before securing jobs or aid, others rely on food stamps alone for many months.
The surge in this way of life has been so swift that few policymakers have noticed. But it attests to the growing role of food stamps within the safety net. One in eight Americans now receives food stamps, including one in four children.
In Florida, the number of people with no income beyond food stamps has doubled in two years and has more than tripled along once-thriving parts of the southwest coast. The building frenzy that lured Bermudez to Fort Myers and neighboring Cape Coral has left a wasteland of foreclosed homes and written new chapters in star-crossed indigence.
Rex Britton, 22, hopped a bus from Syracuse two years ago for a job painting parking lots. Now, with unemployment at nearly 14 percent and paving work scarce, he receives $200 a month in food stamps and stays with a girlfriend who survives on a rent subsidy and a government check to help her care for her disabled toddler.
“Without food stamps, we’d probably be starving,” Britton said.
Florida officials have done a better job than most in monitoring the rise of people with no cash income. They say the access to food stamps shows the safety net is working.
“The program is doing what it was designed to do: help very needy people get through a very difficult time,” said Don Winstead, deputy secretary for the Department of Children and Families. “But for this program they would be in even more dire straits.”
But others say the lack of cash support shows the safety net is torn. The main cash welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has scarcely expanded during the recession; the rolls are down about 75 percent from their 1990s peak. A different program, unemployment insurance, has rapidly grown, but still omits nearly half the unemployed. Food stamps, easier to get, have become the safety net of last resort.
“The food-stamp program is being asked to do too much,” said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group. “People need income support.”
Food stamps, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have taken on a greater role in the safety net for several reasons. Because the benefit buys only food, it draws less suspicion of abuse than cash aid and more political support. And the federal government pays for the whole benefit, giving states reason to maximize enrollment. States typically share in other programs’ costs.
Income data on food-stamp recipients in 31 states, which account for about 60 percent of the national caseload, were studied. On average, 18 percent listed cash income of zero in their most recent monthly filings. Projected over the entire caseload, that suggests 6 million people in households with no income. About 1.2 million are children.
The numbers have nearly tripled in Nevada in the past two years, doubled in Florida and New York, and grown nearly 90 percent in Minnesota and Utah. In Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, one of every 25 residents reports an income of only food stamps. In Yakima County, Wash., the figure is about one of every 17.
Experts caution that these numbers are estimates. Recipients typically report a small rise in earnings just once every six months, so some people listed as jobless may have recently found some work. New York officials say their numbers include some households with earnings from illegal immigrants, who cannot get food stamps but sometimes live with relatives who do.
Still, there is little doubt that millions of people are relying on food stamps alone, and their numbers are rapidly growing. “This is a reflection of the hardship that a lot of people in our state are facing; I think that is without question,” said Winstead, the Florida official.
The expansion of the food-stamp program, which will spend more than $60 billion this year, has enjoyed bipartisan support. But it does have conservative critics who worry about the costs and the rise in dependency.
“This is craziness,” said Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., the ranking minority member of a House panel on welfare policy. “We’re at risk of creating an entire class of people, a subset of people, just comfortable getting by living off the government.”
He added: “You don’t improve the economy by paying people to sit around and not work. You improve the economy by lowering taxes” so small businesses will create more jobs.