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Most food stamp recipients are working-age — for the first time

It used to be that food stamps went mostly to children and the elderly. Not anymore. An Associated Press report shows that for the first time ever, the majority of food stamp recipients are Americans of working age.

People between 18 and 59 years of age amount to over 50 percent of the households acquiring food stamps as of 2009, and the number of workers who received some college education has inreased since 1980, according to the report. Nearly 30 percent of the households that get food stamps are led by someone with some higher education.

It appears that what used to be the middle class, and those who have some degree of higher education, are now relying on the safety net. Economists at the University of Kentucky who crunched government data for the AP report indicate that 1 in 7 Americans is now covered by what was formally called SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The trend indicates that many jobs in the U.S. don't cover the cost of living, according to economists.

"A low-wage job supplemented with food stamps is becoming more common for the working poor," Timothy Smeeding, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in income inequality, told the AP. "Many of the U.S. jobs now being created are low- or minimum-wage — part-time or in areas such as retail or fast food — which means food stamp use will stay high for some time, even after unemployment improves."

Education, once a safeguard from low-income work, is not as fail-safe as it has been in the past. Food assistance for those with college degrees has risen from 3 percent to 7 percent since 1980. High-school grads still receive the lion's share at 37 percent, up from 28 percent. Households led by high-school dropouts have dropped by half, to 28 percent.

About half of the new jobs created since the recession are low-wage jobs, and economists say that food stamp rolls won't shrink until the American economy can offer not just more jobs, but better pay.

"We do not expect income inequality stabilizing or declining in the absence of real wage growth or a significant reduction in unemployment and underemployment problems," Ishwar Khatiwada, an economist for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, told the AP.