Nothing but a strand of the net: One in 37 Oklahomans has food stamps, nothing else

The New York Times this weekend ran an important feature on one important and disturbing sign of the impact of the recession – the large and growing population of food stamp recipients that report zero household income:

About six million Americans receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of state data collected by The New York Times. In declarations that states verify and the federal government audits, they described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash aid — no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay.

Nationally, 18 percent of food stamp recipients in states surveyed by the Times listed cash income of zero. In Oklahoma, according to data provided me by the Department of Human Services, 48,730 food stamp households reported zero income in June 2009. This is just under one in four – 23.4 percent – of all food stamp households. Of those non-income households, there was an almost equal mixture of households with children (47 percent) and without children (53 percent). Just under 100,000 people lived in these households in June, or about one in 37 Oklahomans.

As we have discussed previously on this blog and in our monthly Numbers You Need bulletin, Oklahoma, like other states, has seen major, sustained growth in its food stamp caseload. The number of food stamp recipients, which was an early indicator of worsening economic times in Oklahoma, has now risen for 20 consecutive months and has surpassed 550,000 people, or one in seven Oklahomans. To some extent, the growing number and share of food stamp households without income reflects the program’s success in reaching and serving those in distress. In particular, recent changes in program eligibility now allow for more childless adults to receive benefits. This population is frequently ineligible for other safety net and work support programs which are restricted to parents of dependent children.

But as the Times notes, this substantial zero-income population points to gaping hopes in the social safety net, especially when it comes to providing income support to those without work. Welfare reform in the 1990’s  did not just “end welfare as we know it”; to a large extent, it ended welfare, period. Oklahoma’s Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program has expanded somewhat in recent months but still only serves some 10,000 families and less than 5,000 single parents (the remaining cases are “child-only”). By comparison, 15 years ago, in 1995, some 45,000 families received monthly cash assistance payments, almost all of which included a working-age parent.  As we noted last May, only 29 percent of unemployed Oklahomans receive Unemployment Insurance benefits.

DHS has been able to compile valuable demographic information on the population of food stamp recipients without other income – we know, for example, that about three in five iare White, one in five Black, one in eight American Indian, and one in twenty Hispanic. We know that men slightly outnumber women in zero-income households without children, while there are three times as many men as women in zero-income households with children. But what we know less well and need to understand much better is how all these households are getting by from day to day and month to month, what impact this is having on their physical and psychological health, and when their situations will improve.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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