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Half of all Americans will use food stamps during adulthood, Cornell researcher's study finds

ITHACA, N.Y. -- To be worry-free about having enough food is not the norm in the United States, says a Cornell University sociologist.

"Rather, the need to use food stamps is a common American experience that at least half of all Americans between the ages of 20 and 65 will face," says Thomas A. Hirschl, professor of development sociology at Cornell who has completed a study of food stamp use.

Race and education, Hirschl says, have dramatic links to food stamp use: More than 85 percent of African Americans will use food stamps some time between the ages of 20 and 65, compared with 37 percent of white Americans; about 64 percent of adults with less than 12 years of education will use food stamps, compared with 38 percent of adults with 12 or more years of education.

The study, co-authored with Mark R. Rank, professor of social work at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, will be published in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior . The findings were presented at the Society for Nutrition Education annual meeting in Philadelphia in July 2003.

Looking at the two extremes, the researchers found that about one-quarter of white males with 12 or more years of education will use food stamps, while more than 90 percent of black females with less than 12 years of education will use food stamps some time between ages 20 and 65.

"We also find that while the use of food stamps is often brief, of those who have used food stamps once, about three-quarters will use them again in a different year," says Hirschl. "These findings are in sharp contrast to the belief that the use of the nation's food nutrition safety net is something that happens to someone else and is atypical of the American experience. Rather, they indicate that Americans have a substantial need and use of food stamps, and they suggest a significant risk of food insecurity across the life course." Food insecurity is defined as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or the acquisition of acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.

The researchers merged 30 waves (1968 to 1997) of the nationally representative Panel Study of Income Dynamics data set to analyze 260,000 "person years" of information on food stamp use, defined as an individual in a household receiving food stamps sometime during the year.

"The patterns that emerged from our analysis are particularly troubling in light of the fact that food insecurity, along with hunger, have been shown to be closely related to various health problems, including an increased risk in the development of chronic diseases, impairment of psychological and cognitive functioning among children and a greater likelihood of self-reporting health status as poor," report Hirschl and Rank. "The fact that at least four out of 10 Americans will experience food insecurity at some point during their adulthood would appear to represent a significant public health cause for concern."

The findings show that many Americans rely on food stamps to help them through periods of economic turmoil." Yet ironically, the food nutrition safety net that was designed to help alleviate food insecurity and hunger has been under attack in recent years and is threatened by proposals to reduce and restrict enrollment," says Hirschl.

The research was supported by a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded research development grant administered through the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research.

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oThomas A. Hirschl

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