Economic indicator: Food stamp use doubling along Florida's gulf coast
Wake up and good morning. Yet another economic indicator -- the rise in use of food stamps in Florida -- has emerged that shows the Sunshine State, especially the southwest gulf coast counties, is struggling against a rapidly escalating downturn that's forcing many residents to seek government aid in order to feed themselves.
Food stamp use already is at a record highs nationwide and climbing by about 20,000 people every day, according to a report in the New York Times. A far cry from the program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme, food stamps now help feed one in eight Americans and one in four children. "It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys," the New York Times says. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, the newspaper says, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.
Consider the considerable rise of food stamps between 2007 and 2009 in the Tampa Bay area counties:
* CITRUS: Out of a county population of 142,903, 11 percent use food stamps. Increase since 2007: +87 percent.
* HERNANDO: Out of a county population of 174,618, 12 percent use food stamps. Increase since 2007: +121 percent.
* HILLSBOROUGH: Out of a county population of 1,191,140, 13 percent use food stamps. Increase since 2007: +70 percent.
* MANATEE: Out of a county population of 317,410, 10 percent use food stamps. Increase since 2007: +123 percent.
* PASCO: Out of a county population of 480,751, 11 percent use food stamps. Increase since 2007: +77 percent.
* PINELLAS: Out of a county population of 906,095, 10 percent use food stamps. Increase since 2007: +58 percent.
Which Florida counties have the highest percentage of their residents on food stamps? Putnam County (includes Palatka, east of Gainesville and west of Flagler County on the Atlantic coastline) has 22 percent on food stamps, followed by Homes County (21 percent) and these four counties (all with 20 percent): Gadsden, Dixie, Hendry and Madison.
And which Florida counties experienced the largest percentage increase in food stamp use from 2007 to 2009? The greatest increase was in Lee County (home of Fort Myers), up 150 percent, followed by adjacent Charlotte County (131 percent), Sarasota (130 percent), Manatee (123 percent) and Hernando (121 percent). Line these five counties up on a map and they run from Naples to north of Tampa Bay -- all along Florida's gulf coast, where the housing bust has been especially nasty.
An AP story notes Florida is among those states the U.S. Agriculture Department is concerned that are not adequately administering food stamp programs.
Check out this interactive United States map for more comparisons and details.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist