Congress is on the verge of increasing funding for food stamps as part of the economic stimulus bill, because of the steep rise in the number of Americans applying for the aid.
For example, in the past 20 months Florida's food stamp caseload has grown by more than a half million people, to 1.8 million. George Sheldon, who heads the state's Department of Children and Families, says many applicants are in former boom areas, such as Fort Myers, where construction has ground to a halt.
"These are folks who, quite frankly, have never been on benefits before," he says. "They're plumbers. They're electricians. They're carpenters. And it's a real blow to their psyche to even ask for help."
Sheldon says his department's phone lines and service centers are overwhelmed. And he says that everyone's frustrated, even though the state has still been able to provide the assistance within 30 days, as required by federal law.
"That's not fast enough. I mean, people don't plan to be hungry 30 days from now or seven days from now. If people are hungry today, they need help today," Sheldon says.
Almost every state feels a similar squeeze. Some are trying to handle rising caseloads, even as they're laying off the very workers who process applications.
That's why states are eagerly awaiting passage of the economic stimulus bill. Both the House and Senate versions would provide $300 million to help states administer the food stamp program, which has recently been renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The bills would also increase benefits — by about $20 billion in the House and $16 billion in the Senate. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that will not only help families feed themselves but will boost the economy.
"We are purchasing commodities from those who grow and raise commodities, which puts money in their pockets. Those commodities have to be trucked. Those commodities have to be shelved. Those commodities have to be sold and bagged and transported home. All of that generates economic activity in the community," he says.
It's one of the administration's main selling points. In an effort to garner votes for the bill, Vilsack was busy last week calling pivotal Senate Republicans — such as Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snow — to remind them how much additional food aid their states would receive.
The funding increase has generated little attention or controversy so far. But Robert Rector, of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, sees it as part of a permanent expansion of welfare spending that the country can ill afford — even if it provides a temporary stimulus.
"Anybody who believes that they're going to scale this thing back after five years, I have a lot of waterfront property in New Mexico that I'd like to sell to them. It just isn't going to happen," he says.
But anti-hunger advocates say the food stamp increase is an important step in addressing a serious problem. Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, says it would mean about $79 more a month for a family of four receiving the maximum benefits.
"We're not talking about letting people suddenly switch from fruits and vegetables to caviar and whatever. We're talking about letting people buy enough healthy food to get them through the month, rather than just three weeks of the month," says Weill.
He and other advocates say even more needs to be done if the administration wants to meet its goal of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015.