Food stamps are helping the country make some big strides toward reducing the rate of poverty.
That's according to a study by the Department of Agriculture, which looked at nine years of data and concluded that the food stamp program led to an average annual decline of about 4.4 percent in the prevalence of poverty between 2000 and 2009.
The average annual decline in the depth and severity of poverty as a whole was much larger – 10.3 percent and 13.2 percent, respectively.
According to the World Bank, "depth of poverty" refers to the average dollar amount shortfall of an impoverished family – in other words, how much a poor family needs to not be poor anymore. "Poverty severity," on the other hand, is a measure that include both the depth of poverty and inequality among the poor.
The 2012 federal poverty guidelines, which the government uses to help determine financial eligibility for assistance like the food stamp program, set the poverty guideline at $23,050 in yearly income for a family of four.
The Department of Agriculture's study found that when food stamp benefits were included in family income – something the government doesn't count in its formal poverty measure – the average annual decline from 2000 to 2009 in the depth and severity of child poverty was a considerable 15.5 and 21.3 percent, respectively.
And when food stamps were given a new breath of life by President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 – colloquially called the "stimulus package" – the country saw a reduction in the depth and severity of child poverty by 20.9 and 27.5 percent, respectively.
Additionally, the depth of severity of poverty in the overall population increased only slightly from 2008 levels, despite a still-declining economy.
The New York Times reports that the food stamp program serves more than 46 million people nationwide. Formerly known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), food stamp enrollment grew in leaps and bounds during the recession and in the immediate aftermath, increasing 45 percent between January 2009 and the beginning of this year.
That rise began to plateau in January of this year, which Stacy Dean, an expert on the food stamp program with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, told the Times might indicate the economic recovery is affecting even poor families.
"[Food stamps] play a crucial, but often underappreciated, role in alleviating poverty," she told the Times.
Under-secretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon told the newspaper that the millions of people on food stamps reflect a harsh economic reality and an unforgiving job market.
"Even if [food stamps don't] have the effect of lifting someone out of poverty, it moves them further up," he said.
A report released by the state's Department of Social Services shows that in January 2012, the most recent month for which data was available, nearly 1.8 million households in California received state or federal food stamps totaling over $592.5 million in value.
Los Angeles County had over 495,000 households using state and/or federal food stamps in January, worth more than $164.5 million.