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Swollen food stamp rolls show economy still recovering

Despite signs the economy is improving, a record 27.46-million Americans were receiving food stamps at the end of 1993, according to figures released Monday by the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service.

The enrollment figures _ showing more than 1 in 10 Americans are enrolled in the government program _ indicate that the economic upswing has left millions of poor people behind, government and private experts say.

"Clearly there are people who are not getting all their needs met, if they are applying for food stamps," said Barbara Cohen, a hunger and welfare researcher with the Urban Institute.

Phil Shanholtzer, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, said the agency's experts are puzzled by the increase, though he said it does show the economy has not completely recovered.

"There are still some lingering problems, probably some residual effects of some bad times," he said.

The food stamp program provides a maximum of $375 a month to a family of four, though the average benefit overall is less than $100. The program cost taxpayers $23.6-billion in fiscal year 1993.

Food stamps are the major anti-hunger program for the poor. Some nine out of 10 recipients live below the poverty level, which is set at $1,196 a month for a family of four.

Nearly half of the households receiving food stamps were headed by a single parent, usually a mother, according to a 1991 study of the program. More than half of the recipients were children, while 7 percent were elderly, according to the study quoted by Shanholtzer.

In Florida, there were 1,520,001 food stamp recipients in December, an increase of nearly 8,000 from the month before. The state has the fourth-largest number of recipients, consistent with its standing in population among the states.

California leads the nation with 3.07-million recipients and recorded the largest increase _ 36,000 from November to December of last year. The effects of the January earthquake will not show up until the next report.

Nationally, the enrollment of 27.46-million food stamp recipients for December represented an increase of nearly 76,000 over November. In December 1992, there were 26.6-million Americans on food stamps.

During 1992, with the recession hitting the country hard, the numbers of people on food stamps was increasing at a rate of 100,000 recipients or more a month, Shanholtzer said. The total peaked in March, and then began increasing again in late 1993, he said.

Generally, the number of food stamp recipients falls when the unemployment rate drops and when warm weather sets in. Seasonal employment increases during warmer months, lowering demand for food stamps, he explained.

_ Information from Reuters was used in this report.