At the bustling Sunday farmers' market here, $7 buys a gallon of freshly pressed apple cider, $10 a wedge of award-winning goat cheese. Eight kinds of melons spill over one farmer's table. Another overflows with organic kale, collard greens and purple heirloom tomatoes. If there was ever a sign of post-recession abundance and prosperity in the USA, this would be it.
Yet in the span of a few hours Sunday morning, dozens of shoppers queued up at an unmarked awning near the market's entrance, each handing over a bright orange debit card that allows them to buy fresh fruits and vegetables with federal food stamp benefits. Workers swiped the bright orange "Independence Cards" 53 times.
The contrast suggests just how far the USA still has to go to pull out of its economic malaise, and Census Bureau data released today confirm it: 13.6% of U.S. households received federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits last year, up from 13% in 2011 and 8.6% in 2008, at the height of the recession.
The fresh Census data detail everything from family income to marriage patterns, household size, commuting times and migration patterns, offering a detailed snapshot of how American lives are changing year by year.
In Baltimore, a port city that has found new life attracting high-tech workers downtown, the recovery has been kinder to some neighborhoods than others. On historic North Avenue a few miles north of downtown, blocks of row houses sit empty, burned out or simply abandoned.
When Michele Speaks-March and her husband, Erich March, opened their Apples & Oranges grocery store in this neighborhood last spring, they knew that "a significant number" of their clientele would rely on food stamps or other subsidies, Speaks-March says. The real figure, they soon learned, was close to 90%.
Since then, they've struggled to supplement their food stamp business with catering and deli sandwiches, among other ideas. They've found that after neighbors' SNAP benefits run out around the middle of the month, their customer base dissolves.
Experts say that part of the rise in food stamp enrollment stems from states expanding eligibility but that much of the past few years' increase results from extended unemployment. "We still have millions of individuals out of work," says Stacy Dean of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Poverty in America today, she says, is largely a story of unemployed workers or those who must combine their wages with public assistance to survive.
Congress is debating whether to tighten eligibility, which could reduce the number of people receiving the food aid. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., supports allowing states to require able-bodied recipients to spend 20 hours a week in either a job or job training.
Like many others -- including analysts at the Congressional Budget Office -- Dean expects food stamp enrollment to taper off as a more robust recovery takes hold, but that may not happen for years. The CBO doesn't expect enrollment to fall below pre-recession levels until 2019.
At the farmers' market, many SNAP recipients wait eagerly to trade their benefits for special $1 wooden tokens they can exchange for produce. One woman holds a crumpled nylon Trader Joe's grocery bag at her side as a tiny child clings to her leg. A tall man in a purple Baltimore Ravens jersey, his child riding high in a baby backpack, waits behind her.
"It's a sign of the times," says Carole Simon, the market manager. "So many people don't have jobs or they have low-paying jobs."
Jennifer Johnson, 37, of Baltimore, a nanny for 20 years, says she's happy to be able to afford the fresh fruits and vegetables, even on SNAP. "Because we have issues and we have to be on this doesn't mean that we're second-rate," she says.
Other Census findings:
--Average household and family size stopped growing for the first time since the recession, holding at 2.64 and 3.25, respectively. Both had been dropping for years before the downturn forced foreclosed families to crowd together with relatives and sent adult kids "boomeranging" to their parents' homes.
--Birth rates stopped dropping, holding at 54 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 50.
--Average travel time to work increased after dropping during the recession. It's now 25.7 minutes, up from 25.1 in 2009. The share of people who work at home rose to 4.4% in 2012, up from 3.9% in 2006.
--The USA's housing vacancy rate dropped sharply, to 12.4% from 13.1%, the lowest since 2008. Kenneth Johnson, a University of New Hampshire demographer, says the new findings suggest that the recession's braking effect on migration "may be diminishing." Domestic migration reaching its highest level in five years: Nearly 16.9 million people moved between counties in 2012, a gain of 175,000 over 2011.
Eileen Blass, USA TODAY