Food stamp families to critics: Walk in our shoes

By Jesse Washington, Associated Press

January 19, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) – Some have advanced degrees and remember middle-class lives. Some work selling lingerie or building websites. They are white, black and Hispanic, young and old, homeowners and homeless. What they have in common: They’re all on food stamps.As the food stamp program has become an issue in the Republican presidential primary, with candidates seeking to tie President Barack Obama to the program’s record numbers, The Associated Press interviewed recipients across the country and found many who wished that critics would spend some time in their shoes.

Most said they never expected to need food stamps, but the Great Recession, which wiped out millions of jobs, left them no choice. Some struggled with the idea of taking a handout; others saw it as their due, earned through years of working steady jobs. They yearn to get back to receiving a paycheck that will make food stamps unnecessary.

“I could never have comprehended being on food stamps,” said Christopher Jenks, who became homeless in his hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul after a successful career in sales and marketing.

He refused to apply for several years, even panhandling on a freeway exit ramp before finally giving in. A few months ago, while living in his car, he began receiving $200 per month.

“It’s either that or I die,” said Jenks, who grew up in a white, middle-class family and lost his job in the recession. “I want a job. So do a lot of other Americans that have been caught up in this tragedy.”

In 2011, more than 45 million people – about one in seven Americans – received benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the most ever. Fewer than 31 million people collected the benefits about three years earlier.

Forty-nine percent of recipients are white, 26 percent are black and 20 percent are Hispanic, according to Census data.

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