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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A record 32.2 million people -- one in every 10 Americans -- received food stamps at the latest count, the government said on Thursday, a reflection of the recession now in its 16th month.
Food stamps, the major U.S. anti-hunger program, help poor people buy groceries. The average benefit was $112.82 per person in January.
The January figure marks the third time in five months that enrollment set a record.
"A weakened economy means that many more individuals are turning to SNAP/Food Stamps," said the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group, using the acronym for the renamed food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The U.S. unemployment rate was 8.1 percent in February, the highest in 25 years. Weekly claims for jobless benefits totaled 669,000 last week, the highest in 26 years, the government said on Thursday.
Food stamp enrollment rose in 46 of the 50 states during January as the national total rose by 580,000 people, or 1.3 percent, from December, when the previous record was set, said Agriculture Department figures.
Vermont, Alaska and South Dakota had increases of more than 5 percent. Texas had the largest enrollment, 2.984 million, down 65,000, followed by California at 2.545 million, up 43,000, and New York with 2.211 million, up 37,000.
"It is a very difficult time for low-income families and individuals and also a difficult time for the groups that serve them," said Valentine Breitbarth of Bread for the City, a group that works with poor families in Washington.
Food stamp benefits get a temporary 13 percent increase, beginning with this month, under the economic stimulus law signed by President Barack Obama. The increase equals $80 a month for a household of four.
Recent food stamp data:
September 2008 31.587 million
October 2008 31.050 million
November 2008 31.097 million
December 2008 31.784 million
January 2009 32.205 million
Reporting by Charles Abbott and Russ Blinch; editing by Jim Marshall