BALTIMORE - At the bustling weekly 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, while 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. City 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 only 8.6% in 2008 at the height of the recession. For many here and elsewhere, this is the Recovery That Wasn't.
The fresh Census data detail everything from family income to marriage patterns, household size, commuting times and migration patterns, offering a detailed annual snapshot of how American lives are changing year by year.
Here in Baltimore, a port city that has found new life attracting high-tech workers, the recovery has been kinder to some neighborhoods than others. On historic North Avenue a few miles north of downtown, blocks of rowhouses sit empty, burnt out or in some cases 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.
A local community organizer, March says he tried to get big grocery chains to open in a vacant space that once housed a Sears Automotive shop - March's family has operated a funeral home nearby for 60 years. "Nobody was interested in coming to this neighborhood," he says. "So my wife and I said, 'If it's going to happen, we're going to have to do it ourselves.' "
Experts say part of the rise in food stamps results from states expanding eligibility but that much of the past few years' increase is due to extended unemployment.
"In this economy 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 in order to survive. "It's either that the wages or the hours are insufficient in order to be a living income."
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. And a House vote on cutting nearly $4 billion a year from food stamp assistance could come Thursday.
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. CBO doesn't expect SNAP enrollment to fall below pre-recession levels until 2019.
"It is very much a barometer of the economy for low-income Americans," Dean says, "but what it's telling us is that it's still a very tumultuous time for them."
One key indicator: 48% of households headed by females with children under 5 now live in poverty, up from 45 % in 2008.
"It is clear that the most economically vulnerable populations are the least likely to show signs of recovery," says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.
At the farmers' market, many SNAP recipients wait eagerly to trade their benefits for special $1 wooden tokens that 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. Another woman, standing nearby, pulls a stainless steel travel mug from her bag and says her first stop each week is Zeke's Coffee stand - if you provide the mug, she explains, coffee is $1 instead of the usual $2.
"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.
• Average household and family size stopped growing for the first time since the recession, holding at 2.64 and 3.25, respectively. Both indicators 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 age 15 to 50. They actually ticked up for women who are 35 to 50, perhaps a sign of delayed childbearing beginning as the economy improves.
• The USA's foreign-born population stayed at 13%, up just about 300,000 from 2011.
. As a result, it's getting more assimilated. The share that have become citizens keeps rising and could reach 50% within a few years. It's 45.8%, up from 42% in 2006.
- The share of people who speak a language other than English keeps ticking up - it's 21% - but the share of those who speak English less than "very well"has dropped to 8.5%.
- The average commuting time continued to rise after dropping during the recession, when highway congestion dropped. It's 25.7 minutes, up from 25.1 minutes in 2009. The percentage of people who work at home ticked up again, reaching 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 impact on migration "may be diminishing," with domestic migration reaching its highest level in five years: Nearly 16.9 million migrants moved between counties in 2012, a gain of 175,000 over 2011.