CHICAGO – The estimate was startling, and made headlines around the country: Almost half of all U.S. kids will be on food stamps at some time during childhood.
How could it be true in the land of plenty, in the midst of an obesity epidemic, skeptics wondered.
Surprisingly, many statisticians and policy analysts say the projection seems about right. Where they differ, along ideological lines, is in interpreting what it all means.
Most would agree that people on food stamps aren't necessarily starving, and some may not be even close to it. It's also clear that people who need food stamps the most often don't get them.
Food stamps are a U.S. Department of Agriculture program administered by states, but the USDA's annual report on food stamp enrollment, released this week, said dozens of states failed to reach some of the country's most needy citizens in 2007.
Whether receiving food stamps means people are truly impoverished provokes more debate.
The eye-opening estimate on children is from an analysis published earlier this month in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The authors, sociologists from Cornell University and Washington University in St. Louis, based their projection on 30 years of national data. They said their results show U.S. kids face a substantial risk for experiencing poverty, which poses a serious threat to their health and well-being.
A USDA hunger report last week raised similar concerns, finding that more than one in seven American households lacked "food security" in 2008 — the highest number since tracking began in 1995. That suggests almost 15 percent of households nationwide struggled to get enough to eat, versus about 11 percent in 2007.
Sarah Meadows, a Rand Corp. policy analyst, called the food stamps analysis believable but stressed that it doesn't mean that half of all children are using food stamps at any given time.
"While there may be a group of children who are persistently exposed to poverty, many move in and move out," she said.
Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman said the paper clarifies a misconception "that people are either on welfare or they're not." Reality is more nuanced; the study underscores that some families only receive government aid temporarily, he said.
Lisa Zilligen of Chicago is an example. The 28-year-old single mother has three young children and has received food stamps on and off for several years. When she was a child, her family also received food stamps periodically when her father was unemployed and struggled to raise four children alone.
Zilligen lives in an apartment in a dicey neighborhood, attends Loyola University full-time and earns about $400 a month from a campus office job. She's been getting about $600 in food stamps for the past several months; sometimes the allotment runs out before the end of the month and the family ends up visiting a food pantry, she said.
"My family would not survive without it. Absolutely not," Zilligen said. She shops at a discount grocery store, her children wear donated clothes, and there's no money for extras.
By most American standards, the Zilligens are poor, and the analysis suggests many families are in the same boat.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the analysis' findings are valid — but the "hyperbole" suggesting many families are in danger of dire outcomes is not.
The report aims "to create a picture of alarm that is just not justified by the facts," Rector said. Eligibility is based on income — for a family of four to be eligible, their annual take-home pay can't exceed about $22,000. And Rector argued that many families with comforts like televisions and air conditioning receive food stamps for short periods of time when a parent is laid off.
Olivia Golden, a family welfare specialist formerly with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and now at the Urban Institute, has a different view.
She said the results bolster evidence that many U.S. children lack economic stability, even if they aren't destitute.
"There are several levels of economic disadvantage and we should worry about all of them," Golden said.
Marcia Meyers, a social policy professor at the University of Washington, said most of America's poor "are not on the verge of literal starvation." But they may not get adequate nutrition, and if they're using food stamps, may not have access to high-quality foods, she said.
That partly explains how so many people could be on food stamps in a country where so many are overweight.