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When The Formerly Rich Need Help Buying Food

The image of rich folks using food stamps to buy filet mignon is becoming the 21st-century version of the Reagan-era "Welfare Queen."

GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has become particularly fond of the notion, claiming that people can even use food stamps for a trip to Hawaii. In a Nov. 30 appearance caught by ABC News, the former House speaker said: "They give food stamps now to millionaires because, after all, don't you want to be compassionate?"

Unfortunately for the millions of Americans who could really use a trip to Hawaii right about now, that's not true. But increasingly, people who live in ritzy ZIP codes are finding it harder to pay for groceries, according to new data.

New Jersey's Hunterdon County, where the median household income is $97,874, led the nation in rising food stamp use, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Bloomberg News. In Hunterdon, an idyllic-looking place of horse farms and covered bridges southwest of New York City, food stamp enrollment rose 513 percent from 2007 to 2010, from 232 people in 2007 to 1,424 in 2010.

In that span, the percentage of households using food stamps more than doubled in six of the 10 wealthiest counties in the nation, according to the Bloomberg report. These folks, though, likely fell an income bracket or two before they signed up; persistent joblessness and people's inability to sell their homes were the main drivers of need, Bloomberg reports.

Those formerly rich folks are not alone. Nationwide, requests for food assistance have increased in 25 of 29 cities over the past year, according to a survey released today by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Unemployment was the chief reason people listed for needing help from food stamps or food banks.

"The problem is acute, and it's growing," Sly James, mayor of Kansas City, Mo., said at a press conference announcing the survey results. His city is trying to help by filling children's backpacks with food staples on Friday, so the family can eat over the weekend. "The unfortunate part is that the number of children affected seems to be on the increase."

Nationwide, more people have turned for help to the federal food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, than ever before, with more than 40 million people enrolled.

That hasn't gone without notice in Washington, where legislators have been making noise about banning millionaires from unemployment insurance and food stamps.

Shades of the 1970s, when then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan would complain about "a woman in Chicago" who he said was raking in over $150,000 a year in benefits including food stamps, welfare, and Social Security. The truth was less inflammatory; Linda Taylor was eventually found guilty of using two aliases to collect $8,000 in welfare checks. But the press dubbed her the "Welfare Queen," and the myth was born.

Gingrich's claims of food stamp millionaires and food stamps trips to Hawaii have been efficiently debunked by PolitiFact.

Indeed, these days the odds of a millionaire getting food stamps are pretty darned slim, since a person's household income can't exceed 130 percent of the poverty line, or $2,008 a month for a family of four, to qualify. When applying, people have to list all sources of income, including stock dividends, as well as cash in the bank. That includes Swiss bank accounts, too. (Try this online screening tool to see if you qualify.)

But some millionaires do slip through the cracks.

Earlier this year, Michigan resident Leroy Fick earned infamy as the food stamp version of the Welfare Queen when people saw him using a food stamp debit card to buy groceries after he'd won $2 million in the state's lottery. State officials said he still met the income threshold for assistance, but lawmakers quickly moved to change regulations that would allow such largess.

Fick, of Auburn, Mich., told a local TV station "If you're going to ... try to make me feel bad, you aren't going to do it. It ain't going to happen."

Here's hoping he's since cracked into those lottery winnings to bring home the bacon.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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