The number of Montgomery County and Prince George's County residents on food stamps has more than doubled since fiscal 2008, reflecting a statewide trend since the recession started, data show.
Food stamp recipients also doubled in Fairfax County, and are up in Virginia by 73 percent and in the District by 59 percent, in the same time period.
In Montgomery County, 6.5 percent of 990,000 residents are on food stamps, and in Prince George's County, 11 percent of 871,000 residents. In all, roughly 13 percent of Maryland's 5.8 million residents are on food stamps.
In Virginia, 11 percent of 8.1 million residents are on food stamps. Of Fairfax County's 1.1 million residents, 4.5 percent are on food stamps, while 22 percent of the District's 618,000 residents receive food stamps.
The growth is being caused by the recession on top of new rules under the federal stimulus package that made qualifying for benefits easier and allowed recipients to stay on the program longer. (See data in the spreadsheet embedded below this story.)
Since fiscal 2011, average monthly participation is up almost 14 percent in Maryland, 10 percent in Virginia and almost 8 percent in the District, according to data from each jurisdiction.
Virginia began to notice the growth in food stamp enrollment in July 2007 -- the beginning of fiscal 2008 -- just before the recession began, said Tom Steinhauser, director of the Virginia Department of Social Services' Division of Benefit Programs.
"I was hoping we would start to see it level off, but in September we saw about a 4,000-caseload increase, and that was kind of a jump," he said.
With the rise in participation, costs more than doubled in all three locations between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2011, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. The District saw a 104 percent increase, from $112 million to $229 million, Virginia's costs grew 119 percent, from $610 million to $1.4 billion, and Maryland's costs increased 140 percent, from $432 million to $1 billion.
The 2009 stimulus program has prompted much of the increase, said Urban Institute fellow Sheila Zedlewski. The bill implemented changes allowing people to remain on the program for longer periods without reapplying and permit unemployed "able-bodied adults without children" to receive food stamps for a longer period of time.
Qualifying for benefits became easier; in many states, anyone enrolled in Medicaid or another similar program automatically qualifies.
And with benefits accessible on debit cards, people became less afraid of embarrassment at the grocery store.
"There's much less stigmatism around [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] than there ever was around food stamps [before 2008]," Zedlewski said. "It's much more accepted as a work-support program."
But ultimately, food stamp enrollment growth is a product of the recession, Zedlewski said. "More people are eligible because of the higher unemployment, but also because of wages not keeping up with inflation or hours being cut -- all of those things that you don't capture in an unemployment rate."
Nationally, there were 14.9 million households receiving food stamps in 2011 -- roughly 13 percent -- according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Communities Survey.
Average monthly food stamp participants
Sources: D.C. Department of Human Services, Maryland Department of Human Resources and Virginia Department of Social Services. Figures for 2013 represent the fiscal year so far. In D.C., the fiscal year begins Oct. 1, while in Maryland and Virginia, it begins July 1.