This both due to the sluggish economic recovery and the expansion of eligibility rules for the program. The Obama administration has been particularly aggressive about getting people on the rolls, reports the Wall Street Journal:

The food-stamp rolls have swollen since 2008 and are projected to stay that way for years. In 2008, SNAP enrollment was 28.2 million. Unemployment peaked in October 2009 at 10% and was at 7.7% as of February, but SNAP kept growing.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts unemployment will drop to 5.6% by 2017 but that SNAP enrollment will drop slightly to 43.3 million people, down 4.5 million from the current level.

That makes it very different from the other big federal support program, unemployment insurance, which shrinks as the economy improves. Continued jobless claims dropped to 3.1 million in February after peaking at 6.6 million in May 2009.

Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the Department of Agriculture, said SNAP is working as designed, expanding to extend benefits to more Americans as poverty levels increase. He said USDA officials expect the program to soon begin contracting as the economy improves.

“While the perception may be different, the actual raw numbers, almost 50 million people [under the federal poverty level], is certainly one of the principal reasons why we see the enrollment increases in the SNAP program,” he said. A more aggressive effort to get people on the rolls and changes in the eligibility standards were also factors, he said.