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For Americans living in poverty, help arrives monthly at midnight

Dionne Spikes and her half sister Melinda Patterson, right, buy food at a Cincinnati Kroger food store. Americans relying on government benefits are doing their homework to stretch the payments. Food stamp funds arrive monthly.

Associated Press

Dionne Spikes and her half sister Melinda Patterson, right, buy food at a Cincinnati Kroger food store. Americans relying on government benefits are doing their homework to stretch the payments. Food stamp funds arrive monthly.

FREDERICKSBURG, Va.

Once a month, just after midnight, the beeping checkout scanners at a Walmart just off Interstate 95 come alive in a chorus of financial desperation.

At grocery stores across the country, the chimes come just after food stamps and other monthly government benefits drop into the accounts of shoppers who have been rationing things like milk, ground beef and toilet paper and can finally stock up again.

Shoppers mill around the store after 11 p.m., killing time until their accounts are replenished. When midnight strikes, they rush for the checkout counter.

"The kids are sleeping, so we go do what we've got to do. Money is tight," Martin Young said as he and his wife pushed two carts piled high with essentials.

The couple said they need food stamp benefits, which are electronically deposited onto debit cards, because his job as a restaurant server doesn't quite cover expenses for their five children.

More than a year after the technical end of the Great Recession, millions of Americans still have a hard time stretching their dollars until the first of the month, or even the next payday.

One in seven Americans lives in poverty, and more than 41 million are on food stamps, a record. Last year, the figure was about 35 million.

As a result, there are more scenes like the one last week at a 24-hour Kroger in Cincinnati. As the final hours of September ticked down, about five dozen cars were in the parking lot. It's much slower on normal weeknights.

"This here is emergency bread," said Melinda Patterson, 36, who has been without a full-time job since the recession began and had started shopping 20 minutes before midnight. That's when $435 in food stamps kicked in to help feed her six children.

Stores have always noted swings in spending around paydays — a dropoff in buying in the days before shoppers receive paychecks or government subsidies, followed by a spurt of spending once the money is available.

The recession and its aftermath have taken the trend to an extreme. Tight credit is a factor, too. When cash runs out, many can no longer fall back on credit cards to buy what they need.

There are no broad data on the impact of this shopping pattern, known as the paycheck cycle. But stores have learned how to adapt to the surges. Walmart, Kroger, Kmart and others have worked with their suppliers to stock more gallons of milk and supersized packages of toilet paper and detergent at the start of the month. Smaller packages and store brands are given prominence leading up to payday.

"This is the new normal," said Richard Hastings, macro and consumer strategist with Global Hunter Securities. "This is going to be like this for many years to come."

1 in 7

Americans living in poverty;

1 in 5 is a child

43.6 million

Americans living in poverty

41 million

Americans living on food stamps, a record

35 million

Americans living on food stamps last year

2.7 million

Floridians living in poverty, or 14.6 percent



For Americans living in poverty, help arrives monthly at midnight 10/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 9:30pm]
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