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Food Stamps Again A Vivid Symbol In Poverty Debate

Language in Clinton's 1996 welfare overhaul required able-bodied adults who aren't raising children to work or attend job training or similar programs to qualify for food stamps after three months. But those work requirements across most of the nation have been waived for several years because of the high unemployment rate.

People who are living in the United States illegally aren't eligible for food stamps. Most adults who immigrate legally aren't eligible during their first five years in the country.

___

RISING LIKE YEAST

The cost to taxpayers more than doubled over just four years, from $38 billion in 2008 to $78 billion last year.

Liberals see a program responding to rising need at a time of economic turmoil. Conservatives see out-of-control spending, and many Republicans blame President Barack Obama. While seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, Newt Gingrich labeled Obama the "food stamp president."

Some of the growth can be attributed to Obama's food stamp policies, but Congress' budget analysts blame most of it on the economy.

The big factors:

â¿¿The SNAP program is an entitlement, meaning everyone who is eligible can get aid, no matter the cost to taxpayers.

â¿¿Millions of jobs were lost in the recession that hit in 2007. Unemployment is still high, and many people who have jobs are working fewer hours or for lower pay than before, meaning more people are eligible.

â¿¿Obama's 2009 economic stimulus temporarily increased benefit amounts; that boost is set to expire on Nov. 1. Time limits for jobless adults without dependents are still being waived in most of the country.

â¿¿Food stamp eligibility requirements were loosened by Congress in 2002 and 2008, before Obama became president.

â¿¿Fluctuating food prices have driven up monthly benefit amounts, which are based on a low-cost diet.

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FEWER TO FEED?

The number of people using food stamps appears to be leveling off this year, and long-term budget projections suggest the number will begin to fall as the economy improves.

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