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The politics and demographics of food stamp recipients

Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to have received food stamps at some point in their lives—a participation gap that echoes the deep partisan divide in the U.S. House of Representatives, which on Thursday produced a farm bill that did not include funding for the food stamp program.

Overall, a Pew Research Center survey conducted late last year found that about one-in-five Americans (18%) has participated in the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. About a quarter (26%) lives in a household with a current or former food stamp recipient.

Of these, about one-in-five (22%) of Democrats say they had received food stamps compared with 10% of Republicans. About 17% of political independents say they have received food stamps.

The share of food stamp beneficiaries swells even further when respondents are asked if someone else living in their household had ever received food stamps. According to the survey, about three in ten Democrats (31%) and about half as many Republicans (17%) say they or someone in their household has benefitted from the food stamp program.

But when the political lens shifts from partisanship to ideology, the participation gap vanishes. Self-described political conservatives were no more likely than liberals or moderates to have received food stamps (17% for each group), according to the survey.

Beyond politics, equally large or larger gaps emerge in the participation rates of many core social and demographic groups. For example, women were about twice as likely as men (23% vs. 12%) to have received food stamps at some point in their lives. Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to have used this benefit during their lives (31% vs. 15%). Among Hispanics, about 22% say they have collected food stamps.

Minority women in particular are far more likely than their male counterparts to have used food stamps. About four-in-ten black women (39%) have gotten help compared with 21% of black men. The gender-race participation gap is also wide among Hispanics: 31% of Hispanic women but 14% of Hispanic men received assistance.

Among whites, the gender-race gap is smaller. Still, white women are about twice as likely as white men to receive food stamp assistance (19% vs. 11%).

The survey also found that adults 65 and older are significantly less likely than other age groups to say they have received food stamps. For example, about 18% of adults aged 18 to 29 have benefitted from this entitlement program compared with 8% of those 65 and older. Those who have a high school diploma or less formal education are roughly three times more likely than college graduates to have been helped.

The farm bill passed by the House on Thursday, after a day of intense and sometimes hostile debate, was stripped of about $740 billion in funding for food stamps, setting up a confrontation with the Senate which has approved a very different version of the legislation.

The legislation represented the first time since 1973 that a House version failed to provide support for food stamps. The vote Thursday was 216-208, with all 196 Democrats present voting to oppose the measure. Twelve Republicans also voted against the bill.

While politically, congressional Republicans have focused on reducing spending on federal entitlement programs, the Pew Research survey found the U.S. to be “a “bipartisan nation of beneficiaries.”

The survey found that significant proportions of Democrats (60%) and Republicans (52%) say they have benefited from a major entitlement program at some point in their lives. So have nearly equal shares of self-identifying conservatives (57%), liberals (53%) and moderates (53%). The programs were Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment benefits and food stamps.