Sign Of The Times: Food Stamp Use Soars

Food Stamps, USA flag, silhouette of person
John O'Donnell works the night shift at a Manchester, N.H., hospital. An Air Force veteran and a trained commercial painter, he mops floors to help make ends meet.

This week, for the first time in his life, he applied for food stamps, CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports.

"I have, uh, $3 and 3 cents in my pocket. Maybe a handful of pennies on my bureau," he said. "I own a car, and that's it."

He's behind on his rent. And as a diabetic, he spends more on medicine than he does on food. His dinner the day we saw him was a peanut and jelly sandwich and a cup of coffee.

What about savings? Checking account?

"Nothing," he said. "I have absolutely nothing."

Nothing but his pride - and even that's shrinking.

"Initially, it was tough eating the pride. You know, I mean I'm 52; I've never been down this road," he said.

O'Donnell is just one of the record number of Americans now living off food stamps - also known as or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In September, more than 31.5 million Americans received food stamps -- up more than 2 million from the month before. That's one out of every 10 U.S. citizens. A family of four must take home less than $1,767 net per month to qualify for food stamps.

"How bad is it now? What do you see?" Pitts asked Michelle McCarty of the New Hampshire Department of Family and Assistance.

"This is probably the worst," she said. "I've been with the state for 16 years."

From New Hampshire to California, the story is the same. More and more families are relying on faith-based groups and the federal government for food.

"People think 'hunger' and they think of other countries, but it is right here in your neighborhood," said Caroline Vazquez, director of development for the non-profit Feeding America San Diego.

"Everybody's lives have changed with the economy going down," said Anna Martinez, a resident.

In Louisiana, ravaged yet again by hurricanes this year, the number of people on food stamps jumped 234 percent in September compared to a year ago.

In other parts of the country, the numbers are better, but still bad. Reliance of food stamps is up 24 percent in Idaho, nearly 24 percent in Florida, and more than 20 percent in Nevada and Texas.

O'Donnell still lives in a working-class neighborhood, and he says he's still holding on to his faith.

"Times will get better. I'm an American. I live in the strongest nation in the world. Things will get better, and I believe in God," he said.

Like so many Americans, that's all he has left.