6 million try to live on no income but food stamps
Many US jobless lack cash benefits
CAPE CORAL, Fla. - After an improbable rise from the Bronx projects to a job selling Gulf Coast homes, Isabel Bermudez lost it all to an epic housing bust - the six-figure income, the house with the pool, and the investment property.
Now, as she covers the county with resumes and girds herself for rejection, she is supporting two daughters on an income that inspires a double take: zero dollars in monthly cash and a few hundred dollars in food stamps.
With food stamp use at a record high and surging by the day, Bermudez belongs to an overlooked subgroup that is growing especially fast: recipients with no cash income.
About 6 million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid - no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.
Their numbers were rising before the recession as tougher welfare laws made it harder for poor people to get cash aid, but they have soared by about 50 percent over the past two years. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food stamp card.
“It’s the one thing I can count on every month - I know the children are going to have food,’’ Bermudez, 42, said with the forced good cheer she mastered selling rows of new homes.
Members of this straitened group range from displaced strivers like Bermudez to weathered men who sleep in shelters and barter cigarettes. Some draw on savings or sporadic under-the-table jobs. Some move in with relatives. Some get noncash help, such as subsidized apartments. While some go without cash incomes only briefly before securing jobs or aid, others rely on food stamps alone for many months.
The surge in this precarious way of life has been so swift that few policymakers have noticed. But it attests to the growing role of food stamps within the safety net. One in 8 Americans now receives food stamps, including one in four children.
Here in Florida, the number of people with no income beyond food stamps has doubled in two years and has more than tripled along once-thriving parts of the southwest coast. The building frenzy that lured Bermudez to Fort Myers and neighboring Cape Coral has left a wasteland of foreclosed homes and poverty.
A strapping man who once made a living throwing fastballs, William Trapani, 53, left his dreams on the minor league mound and his front teeth in prison, where he spent nine years for selling cocaine. Now he sleeps at a rescue mission, repairs bicycles for small change, and counts $200 in food stamps as his only secure support.
“I’ve been out looking for work every day - there’s absolutely nothing,’’ he said.
Florida officials have done a better job than most in monitoring the rise of people with no cash income. They say the access to food stamps shows the safety net is working.
“The program is doing what it was designed to do: help very needy people get through a very difficult time,’’ said Don Winstead, deputy secretary for the Department of Children and Families. “But for this program they would be in even more dire straits.’’
But others say the lack of cash support shows the safety net is torn. The main cash welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has scarcely expanded during the recession; the rolls are still down about 75 percent from their 1990s peak. A different program, unemployment insurance, has rapidly grown, but still omits nearly half the unemployed. Food stamps, easier to get, have become the safety net of last resort.
“The food stamp program is being asked to do too much,’’ said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group. “People need income support.’’
Food stamps, officially the called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have taken on a greater role in the safety net for several reasons. Because the benefit buys only food, it draws less suspicion of abuse than cash aid and more political support. And the federal government pays for the whole benefit, giving states reason to maximize enrollment. States typically share in other programs’ costs.
The Times collected income data on food stamp recipients in 31 states, which account for about 60 percent of the national caseload. On average, 18 percent listed cash income of zero in their most recent monthly filings. Projected over the entire caseload, that suggests 6 million people in households with no income. About 1.2 million are children.
The numbers have nearly tripled in Nevada over the past two years, doubled in Florida and New York, and grown nearly 90 percent in Minnesota and Utah.
With their condition mostly overlooked, there is little data on how long these households go without cash incomes or what other resources they have. But they appear an eclectic lot.
Florida data shows the population about evenly split between families with children and households with just adults, with the latter group growing fastest during the recession. They are racially mixed, as well - about 42 percent white, 32 percent black, and 22 percent Hispanic - with the growth fastest among whites during the recession.