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The Safety Net
- About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.
- One in eight Americans now receives food stamps, including one in four children.
Living on Nothing but Food Stamps
By JASON DEPARLE and ROBERT M. GEBELOFF
Published: January 2, 2010
CAPE CORAL, Fla. — After an improbable rise 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.
“Without food stamps we’d probably be starving,” said Rex Britton, who has had trouble finding paving work and lives with his girlfriend, Amy Freeman.
With millions of jobs lost and major industries on the ropes, America’s array of government aid — including unemployment insurance, food stamps and cash welfare — is being tested as never before. This series examines how the safety net is holding up under the worst economic crisis in decades.
“It’s the one thing I can count on every month — I know the children are going to have food.” ISABEL BERMUDEZ, who has two daughters and no cash income.
Now, as she papers the county with 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, Ms. Bermudez belongs to an overlooked subgroup that is growing especially fast: recipients with no cash income.
About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they 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 over the past two years. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.
“It’s the one thing I can count on every month — I know the children are going to have food,” Ms. 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 Ms. 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, like 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 precarious way of life has been so swift that few policy makers 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.
The Times collected income data on food-stamp recipients in 31 states, which account for about 60 percent of the national caseload. On average, 18 percent listed cash income of zero in their most recent monthly filings. Projected over the entire caseload, that suggests six million people in households with no income. About 1.2 million are children.
The numbers have nearly tripled in Nevada over 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.