The US Department of Agriculture typically releases its updated monthly statistics for Food Stamp usage at the beginning of each month. But this November, as Americans headed to the polls for the general election on Nov. 6, the agency waited until long after 5:00 PM on Friday, Nov. 9 to issue its data. The federal safety net, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was a political hot potato during the 2012 presidential race, with GOP challenger Mitt Romney blasting President Obama for the massive uptick in enrollment since he took office. (above, on election night in Chicago).
Romney would have had more political fuel. USDA's newly released numbers for August, the latest month for which data is available, are the highest in American history, though the Obama Administration has repeatedly broken its own records for Food Stamp spending and enrollment over the past four years. More than 47.1 million people received Food Stamps in August, at a cost of more than $6.28 billion. USDA says 420,863 Americans were added to the Food Stamp rolls between July and August 2012, with spending going up by more than $19.7 million from July.
More than 15.1 million people have been added to the Food Stamp rolls since President Obama was inaugurated in January of 2009. Then, 31.9 million people were enrolled in the program, with monthly spending at $3.63 billion.
USDA's newly revised spending data for July shows the second record high, at more than $6.26 billion. The enrollment of 46.68 million people is also the second highest level during President Obama's first term.
Participation in the program has remained above 46 million people for the entire fiscal year, and the August 2012 enrollment is an increase of more than 1.3 million people from the year before, and more than 4.7 million people from 2010. Annual federal spending for Food Stamps more than doubled over four years to a record $75.7 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2011.
The numbers undercut the well-crafted Obama campaign narrative of an economy in recovery.
Enrollment rises in battleground states...
Both President Obama and Romney devoted most of their campaign time to the crucial swing states that were identified as the pathway to winning the Electoral College. Food Stamp use rose in every battleground state between July, 2011 and August, 2012, and President Obama swept those states, winning all but North Carolina.
The most contested battleground state, Florida, had the highest percentage increase in enrollment in the continental US, with a 9.4% rise to more than 3.46 million beneficiaries. President Obama, it was confirmed on Friday, won Florida by a tiny margin of the vote, 49.9% to Romney's 49.3%.
The other swing states the President won also had upticks in enrollment, with Colorado rising by 5.9%, Iowa by 5.6%, New Hampshire by 3.2%, Nevada by 2.9%, Wisconsin by 2.3%, Ohio by 1.3%, and Pennsylvania by 1.1%.
North Carolina, won by Romney, had a 4.5% increase in enrollment over the last year.
California, won by President Obama, had the highest overall state-level enrollment for August, with more than 4 million beneficiaries, an increase of 6.4% from last year.
Texas had the second highest enrollment overall, with more than 3.9 million users, down 3.1% from July 2011. Romney took Texas. New York was the third highest, with more than 3.1 million beneficiaries, up by 2.3%, and went Obama. Food Stamp use in President Obama's home state, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands climbed by more than 10% over the year. The President won Hawaii.
The Sessions report...
Food Stamps are USDA's largest annual expense. Ahead of Election Day, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala), the Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee, issued a report that said that as of the October Jobs Report issued on Friday, Nov. 2, four days before the election, "75 people went on food stamps for every one that found a job." The unemployment rate was 7.9% as Americans headed to the polls.
Sessions based his Food Stamps report on the 133.56 million Americans that had jobs in January 2009, which rose to 133.76 million Americans with jobs as of October, a net gain of about 200,000. The October Jobs Report said the economy added 171,000 jobs in October, and because more people were looking for work, the unemployment rate rose to 7.9%.
"During his [Obama's] time in office, 14.7 million people were added to the food stamp rolls," Sessions said. "Over that same time, only 194,000 jobs were created-- thus 75 people went on Food Stamps for every one that found a job."
Sessions can now revise his numbers, since the number of people added to the Food Stamps rolls is now 15.2 million more than when President Obama took office.
A new effort to balance the budget and trim the deficit...
Republicans in Congress have repeatedly criticized the cost of the Food Stamp program, and the House budget plan approved in April sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice-presidential nominee, sought to cut expenses by $33 billion over 10 years.
On Friday, President Obama announced that he has invited Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle to the White House next week to try to hammer out a deal that will focus on balancing the budget and reducing the federal deficit. The President said he will encourage lawmakers to focus on his five-point plan that he touted during the campaign, which will include taxing wealthier Americans, rewarding small businesses and manufacturers that create jobs in the US, helping the US become a global leader in research and technology and clean energy, and putting "folks back to work, including our veterans, rebuilding our roads and our bridges, and other infrastructure."
"At a time when our economy is still recovering from the Great Recession, our top priority has to be jobs and growth," President Obama said. "I intend to work with both parties to do more--and that includes making reforms that will bring down the cost of health care so we can strengthen programs like Medicaid and Medicare for the long haul."
The President made no mention of the Food Stamps program.
Under the rubric of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, the Administration has asked faith and community groups to help enroll citizens in the Food Stamps program, ostensibly to help increase consumption of healthier foods--especially fruits and vegetables--by "underserved" populations.
With this idea in mind, USDA this year also offered $4 million in grants to Farmers Markets across the US, to help increase the acceptance of the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards that carry individuals' Food Stamp allotments.
Food Stamp recipients, however, are free to use their benefits to purchase soda, cake, pies, cookies, chips and plenty of other unhealthy foods under current guidelines.
Food Stamps as economic stimulus?
In August of 2011, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Food Stamps program should be regarded as "an economic stimulus" that creates and saves jobs.
"Every dollar of SNAP benefits generates $1.84 in the economy in terms of economic activity," Vilsack said.
"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. All of those are jobs. It's the most direct stimulus you can get in the economy during these tough times."
Food Stamps first became a political hot potato for the 2012 race when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich dubbed President Obama "the best Food Stamp president in history" during the Republican primaries.
About 47% of Food Stamp recipients are children, according to USDA, and 8% are elderly. About half of all new recipients leave the program within 10 months, the agency says.
A Romney ad from the 2012 race, titled "Can't Afford Another Term," released on Oct. 30, chastised President Obama for the Food Stamps program, but was criticized for getting the facts wrong:
*Photo of President Obama on Election Night by Scout Tufankjian/Obama for America. Updated.