No immunity from hunger in South Dakota

There's good news, and not so good news in South Dakota.

The good news is that unemployment state-wide is somewhere around 5 percent, compared with double-digit unemployment in some states. In fact, as of October, South Dakota had the third best employment rate in the nation.

The bad news: nationwide, food stamp use is soaring. And it appears that our state isn't immune from that trend.

According to a story in Wednesday's Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Food stamps are putting supper on the table for more South Dakota families, and the usage has soared in Sioux Falls, home of the state's most robust economy.

Statewide use of the government benefit jumped 34 percent this fall compared to a year ago, and in Minnehaha County, the rate rose 52 percent.

"Obviously, it's the hard economic times. Some folks who were always eligible just scraped by and did not apply. Now, they can't just scrape by anymore," said Kim Malsam-Rysdon, deputy secretary of the South Dakota Department of Social Services in Pierre.

The food stamp program was once scorned as a failed welfare scheme. Today, across the United States, it helps 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. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.

In South Dakota, more than one out of 10 people now use food stamps, which give eligible households an average of $319 a month for groceries. The income limit for a family of four to qualify is $2,389 a month or $28,668 a year.

In Minnehaha County, which by far has the most robust economy of all regions of South Dakota, participation is 8 percent, but it's risen from fewer than 12,000 residents to more than 18,000 from September 2008 to 2009.

Nationwide, virtually all food stamp users have incomes near or below the federal poverty line. What's alarming is the range of  people struggling with basic needs.

They include single mothers and married couples, the newly jobless and the chronically poor, longtime recipients of welfare checks and workers whose reduced hours or slender wages leave pantries bare.

Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University and a chief political and international correspondent, notes that these numbers are very disturbing for several reasons.

First, there are parts of American society where poverty, welfare and food stamps are institutionalized. These are centers of "multigenerational unemployment," including  large swaths of the rural and largely black South, Appalachia and many areas of large cities including entire cities such as East St. Louis and Detroit (which was just awarded the top spot for "America's Most Miserable Cities," by Forbes).

Second, the American practice of living off credit and having no fall-back during lean times is proving to be a disaster even for middle class people during a strong recession.

Third, in spite of a large surplus labor force in many areas of the United States, there are almost no incentives for companies to locate in these labor-rich zones. Minimum wage, OSHA, environmental regulations, poor infrastructure and high crime rates make it unattractive to hire. The educational deficiencies and lack of work histories of many of the long-term unemployed make them largely unsuitable for 21st century work.

Fourth, there are arguments put forth by market-oriented think tanks and politicians that food stamps are no different from the welfare programs which were criticized by President Bill Clinton as creating "dependency" and freezing in place individuals who could and should move on to improve their lives.

Fifth, in a post-industrial economy such as the United States, where are the massive number of jobs going to come from to hire the unemployed and underemployed, and create jobs for the young workers waiting to enter the labor force for the first time?

According to Schmidt, these very troubling conditions will clearly require us to radically re-engineer our educational systems from kindergarten through graduate school and redesign the economy for an "abundant jobs" 21st century. The painful test will be whether we are up for such profound changes.

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