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Stretching Food Stamps

SIXTY-FIVE cents doesn't buy much for dinner - or lunch or breakfast, for that matter. But that is the average amount the nation's 23.6 million food-stamp recipients can count on for each meal.Nearly one in 10 Americans now relies on government assistance to pay for groceries - a record high. And more than 80 percent of recipients are families with children. As the numbers have risen - they are up by more than 3 million over the same period last year - recipients have become more diverse. No longer simply a symbol of urban poverty, food stamps increasingly serve unemployed middle-class workers in the suburbs. To qualify, a family of four must have a net income that does not exceed $1,117 a month. These statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture make a compelling case for extending jobless benefits for those who have used up their initial 26 weeks of unemployment insurance. Although this extension would not help a majority of food-stamp recipients, it would ease the plight of about 3 million long-term unemployed people, some of whom are among the most recent users of food stamps. The new USDA statistics also serve as an indirect reminder that the government is not the only source of sustenance for hungry Americans. Anti-hunger activists point out that food stamps get many families through just three weeks of the month. After that, families must turn to often overburdened food banks and soup kitchens. Putting food on the table represents one of the most basic family obligations. But buying groceries with food stamps involves accepting the most visible, most public form of aid: charity at the checkout counter. As the holidays approach, food banks and charitable groups are stepping up their campaigns to raise money and collect food for those in need. Although these efforts won't solve the long-term challenges many poor Americans face, they will help to stretch 65-cent food-stamp meals into something modestly more bountiful.

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