WASHINGTON — The number of Americans receiving food stamps topped 40 million for the first time in March as the jobless rate hovered near a 26-year high.
Recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program subsidies for food purchases totaled 40.2 million, up 21 percent from a year earlier and 1.2 percent from February, the Department of Agriculture said Wednesday in a statement on its Web site. The number getting the benefit has set records for 16 straight months.
Food aid climbed as the unemployment rate stayed at 9.7 percent in March for a third straight month, near levels last seen in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate rose to 9.9 percent in April and may fall to 9.8 percent for May when jobless figures are released on June 4, according to a survey by Bloomberg News. Food stamp use will rise as joblessness persists and the government tries to get more eligible families onto assistance, the USDA says.
"We are in an extended recession, so these programs are urgently needed," Kevin Concannon, the head of the department's Food and Nutrition Service, said last month.
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An average of 40.5 million people, more than an eighth of the population, will get food stamps each month in the year that began Oct. 1, according to White House estimates. The figure is projected to rise to 43.3 million in 2011.
Idaho had the biggest increase in food stamp participation rates from a year earlier, surging 43 percent, followed by a 42 percent jump in Nevada, according to the USDA. Texas had the most recipients at 3.56 million, followed by California with 3.23 million and New York with 2.75 million.
The average monthly benefit for an individual rose to $133.87 in March from $133.28 in February, the department said. The benefit for a household of four was $289.96, up from $289.50 the previous month. Total spending was a record $5.38 billion.
To receive full benefits, gross income for a family of four generally must not exceed $2,389 a month. That's about 30 percent more than the official poverty level, according to the USDA. The maximum monthly allotment declines on a sliding scale as income rises.