WASHINGTON — New 2011 census data released Thursday showed that while poverty has slowed, food stamp use continues to climb and Oregon leads the nation.
At 18.9 percent, nearly 1 in 5 families was receiving the government aid in Oregon, according to the 2011 census. This was due in part to generous state provisions that expand food stamp eligibility to families making 185 percent of the poverty level — roughly $3,400 a month for a family of four.
Oregonians who are eligible for food stamps use electronic Oregon Trail cards to shop.
Oregon was followed by more rural or more economically hard-hit states, including Michigan, Tennessee, Maine, Kentucky and Mississippi. Wyoming had the fewest households on food stamps, at 5.9 percent.
Roughly 14.9 million, or 13 percent of U.S. households overall, received food stamps in 2011. This was the highest level on record, with 1 in 8 families getting the aid.
Government programs did much to stave off higher rates of poverty. While the official poverty rate for 2011 remained stuck at 15 percent, or a record 46.2 million people, the government formula did not take into account noncash aid such as food stamps, which the Census Bureau estimates would have lifted 3.9 million people above the poverty line. If counted, that safety net would have lowered the poverty rate to 13.7 percent. And without expanded unemployment benefits, which began expiring in 2011, roughly 2.3 million people would have fallen into poverty.
Some 17 states showed statistically significant increases in the poverty rate, led by Louisiana, Oregon, Arizona, Georgia and Hawaii. Among large metropolitan areas, McAllen, Texas, led the nation in poverty, at 38 percent, followed by Fresno, Calif., El Paso, Texas, and Bakersfield, Calif. In contrast, the Washington, D.C., metro area had the lowest level of poverty, about 8 percent, followed by Bridgeport, Conn., and Ogden, Utah.
"There are signs among all these measures that the multiple downsides of the Great Recession have bottomed out, which is good news especially for young people who have seen their lives put on hold," said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution. "There is some light at the end of the tunnel."
The census also appeared to show that the U.S. economy is showing signs of finally bottoming out. Americans are on the move again after record numbers had stayed put, more young adults are leaving their parents' homes to take a chance with college or the job market, and once-sharp declines in births are leveling off while poverty is slowing.