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By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - The recession will drive the cost of the U.S. food stamp program, which helps poor people buy food, to $50 billion this year, up 27 percent from 2008, congressional forecasters said on Wednesday.
Spending on food stamps rises during economic slowdowns because more people apply for help. The Congressional Budget Office projected higher unemployment rates for the next few years, although economic recovery would begin in 2010.
Some 31 million Americans receive food stamps at latest count, down slightly from the record 31.6 million in September 2008. The average benefit was $119 a month per person and $266 per household.
“The cost really has gone up because more people are out of work,” said Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, whose panel oversees food stamps.
The U.S. unemployment was 6.7 percent at latest count. Analysts expect the December rate, to be released on Friday, to hit 7 percent.
“The faltering economy has increased outlays for unemployment compensation and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” CBO said, using the new, formal name for food stamps.
It forecast outlays would rise to $50 billion for food stamps this year from $39 billion last year, due to higher enrollment and rising food prices. Jobless benefits would total $79 billion, up from $43 billion.
Over the next decade, food stamps would cost an additional $86 billion and unemployment compensation an additional $54 billion than forecast in September 2008, CBO said.
The Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger group, said the decline in food stamp enrollment in October was the result of an end to temporary disaster aid to hurricane victims in Louisiana. In a statement, FRAC said enrollment was 3.9 million people higher than the previous October due to the recession. (Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio)