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Food Stamps Helped Many Families Weather The Recession

Food stamps have long been a favorite whipping boy of politicians looking to beat up on government spending. But the massive food-assistance program does help keep people out of poverty, according to new research.

Food stamp benefits led to a decline of 4.4 percent in poverty from 2000 to 2009, according to a new report from the USDA's Economic Research Service.

The impact was particularly strong for children, who are more likely to live in poverty than adults. Child poverty was reduced by 15.5 percent, on average. The researchers also looked at the depth and severity of poverty, and found that severity was reduced by 21 percent. They say looking at this gives a better measure of the role of food stamps in improving the lives of Americans, compared to just a straight look at the poverty rate.

In 2009, 21 percent of all children, or 15.5 million, lived in poverty. That's up from 16 percent in 2001, an increase attributed to the economic downturn. And that's including the buffering effect of food stamps.

A family of four would have to earn less than $23,050 to be considered poor in 2012, according to the the Department of Health and Human Services.

There's no question that a lot of people are affected by the food stamp program, which is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Last year, 44.7 million Americans got food stamp benefits in an average month. That added up to $72 billion in benefits for the year.

Food stamps figured in the presidential primaries: Republican candidate Newt Gingrich suggested the program was letting millionaires eat steak on the government's dime. Use of food stamps is indeed up in high-income zip codes, as we reported last December. But economists say that's more a factor of long-term unemployment rather than gaming the system to feast courtesy of the government.

The budget plan passed by the House earlier this month would slash spending for food stamps, as well as for other federal entitlement programs.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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