WASHINGTON (AFP) — Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm this week is doing something millions of her constituents are being forced to do year-round; she's living on food stamps.
"She is one of 300 people who are taking a pledge" to eat like a food stamp recipient, including executives of Michigan-based auto giants General Motors, Ford and Chrysler and dozens of legislators, said the state's human services department chief Ismael Ahmed.
"It's my second day on 5.87 dollars a day," Ahmed told AFP by telephone. "I've already calculated that I'll be out of bread by Thursday."
While penny-pinching among the wealthy may help draw attention to poverty issues, living on food stamps is a devastating reality for millions of Americans -- and the numbers are growing to alarming levels.
The number of food stamps being distributed in the United States approached a new record this summer and promises to reach a new peak with repercussions of the financial crisis starting to bite.
More than 29 million Americans received food stamps in July, an increase of close to one million over just three months earlier, according to the latest figures released by the US Department of Agriculture, which distributes the benefits -- these days most often by magnetized debit cards -- to households living below and just over the poverty line.
It is the highest number since 2005 when, in the aftermath of catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, some four million additional people sought food relief, pushing the total to a historic high of 29.85 million.
The latest figures do not yet count the new requests for assistance in September, when several financial institutions collapsed, stock values plunged, housing foreclosures soared, and job losses spiked to the highest level of the year.
"The food stamps program is very sensitive to changes in the overall economy," said James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.
He said families have been broadsided by the rise of multiple household costs including food (6.1 percent in the past year), gas and heating. Hundreds of thousands have also been hard hit by the effects of Hurricane Ike which in September devastated parts of Texas and several southern and midwestern states.
"We've seen an increased participation in the food stamps program which is a critical component of the safety net here," Ziliak said of the federal program instituted in 1943 and which today costs some 30 billion dollars a year and provides an average household benefit of 95 dollars per month.
Karen Johnson, 54, explains that the 81 dollars in foodstamps she receives each month is not enough for her and her 17-year-old daughter.
"Sometimes I have to ask somebody to buy me a little food or something," says the Hurst, Texas resident. "I hate to ask people, 'Can I have some bread? Can I have some hamburger meat?' It's kind of rough on me sometimes."
In the aftermath of the November 4 presidential election, Democrats in Congress hope to pass a bill providing 150 billion dollars in funding for low-income families, including a more ambitious food stamp initiative.
Ziliak said he didn't expect the number of people receiving the benefits to fall for some time.
"Gas prices are still very high for low-income families," and with home heating costs expected to rise in the coming winter, energy costs will "take a big chunk out of the paycheck," Ziliak told AFP.
"For lower income America it's been a pretty tough economic time over the past year."
According to a new report by the Working Poor Families Project, one in four working families -- a total of 42 million adults and children -- are low-income, earning too little to meet their basic needs.
"Understandably, all eyes today are focused on the financial and economic crisis affecting America's working families," said the report's author, Brandon Roberts.
"But the stark reality is that America's working families have been in economic crisis long before this year."
According to the Census Bureau, more than 37 million Americans live below the poverty line, which is now set at 21,000 dollars per year for a family of four.
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