Nearly one in five Arizonans now rely on food stamps, a statistic that - depending on your point of view - proves that either the state's poverty level is too high or the government program is too generous.
The number of Americans who receive food assistance has soared since the recession took hold four years ago. In Arizona, food-stamp enrollment has doubled, to more than 1.1 million people, according to the state Department of Economic Security, which administers the federal program. About half of those who receive food stamps in Arizona are children.
"There's something wrong with this picture," said Ginny Hildebrand, president and CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks. "We need to pay attention to the fact that we've got that many children living in homes that are poverty stricken."
Debate over the nearly 50-year-old, $80 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is intensifying as Congress considers how much to cut government assistance for food, perhaps as part of a package to avoid the "fiscal cliff."
A bipartisan Senate proposal cuts the program by $4 billion over 10 years, while House Republicans are seeking a $16 billion SNAP reduction.
The House bill would eliminate an estimated 2 million to 3 million people from the program over the next decade, most of them working families and children, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based left-leaning think tank.
Most of the SNAP cuts in the House bill come from tightening eligibility, which the Obama administration estimates would eliminate benefits to 3 million people, most of them working families and seniors.
Families are eligible for benefits if they earn below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $2,500 a month for a family of four. The average monthly Arizona SNAP benefit is $125 per person and $290 per household.
Proponents of deeper food-stamp cuts say the program's growth is out of control. But SNAP advocates and leading economists say the increase has been driven largely by the recession and the slow recovery that has followed. The Congressional Budget Office projects SNAP participation, which began stabilizing this year, will decline in 2013 and return to pre-recession levels by 2019.
"Is the food stamp program too big? Yeah, but it's not because of the program. It's because people just ain't got enough," said Bob Evans, president and CEO of United Food Bank, which will distribute about 20 million pounds of food this year to more than 230 organizations in five counties.
Evans said demand among the agencies he serves has grown 60 to 70 percent since the economy tanked, but the food bank can only meet about three-fourths of the requests.
SNAP isn't intended to provide food for an entire family every day, and studies show the monthly benefit typically lasts about two to three weeks. Food banks enable families to stretch their food budget through the month.