20% rise in the food stamp program since the recession hit 2 years ago
One in eight people is now taking advantage of the nationwide subsidised scheme, with 20,000 more signing up each day, according to research by the New York Times.
It found that in 239 counties, at least 25 per cent of residents collected food stamps, which are plastic cards that can be used for a wide range of staple goods at supermarkets.
The scheme has existed for years, and was made easier to apply for by George W Bush, despite conservative opposition. Under Mr Bush, the scheme was also given a less pejorative formal title, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme.
But officials have put the rapid increase down to hard economic times, with demand rising most sharply in places blighted by collapsed housing markets. The newspaper’s research showed there are about 60 counties where registration has doubled since the foreclosure crisis was unleashed in 2007.
One new recipient, an electrician in Ohio, said the monthly benefit of $300 (£180) was plugging the gap left by the collapse of his overtime payments and rising health insurance premiums.
“I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now,” said Greg Dawson, a father of five.
Critics maintain that the system is widely abused, with beneficiaries piling up on steaks and soft drinks, but its defenders argue that genuine need for help with food is overwhelming.
“This is the most urgent time for our feeding programmes in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,” Kevin Concannon, a senior agriculture department official, told the New York Times. “It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.