WASHINGTON -- Rooted in the food assistance programs that brought farm surpluses to the bread lines of the Great Depression in the 1930s, food stamps have become America's "second currency" -- a refuge of last resort for the mounting millions whose earnings do not meet their needs.
But even as the number of food stamp recipients scales new heights -- up 3 million this year to a record 23.6 million nationwide -- a congressional committee has accused the Bush administration of undercutting efforts to make the $22 billion program more accessible to the needy.
In the last eight to 12 months, welfare groups say, the food stamp lines have swelled with increasing numbers of white-collar workers, particularly people from hard-pressed service industries like restaurants and retail stores -- those who might be called the working poor, people like Dreama Price.
In the cold pre-dawn gloom on Friday, she stood among a desultory group of prospective welfare applicants, stamping feet and hugging themselves for warmth as they jostled for places in the line outside the Montgomery County Department of Social Services.
Even though the office wouldn't open before 7:30 a.m. or start interviews of applicants for at least another hour, some had been waiting, breathing ghostly patches on the cold glass entrance doors, since about 6 a.m.
You had to be sure of getting a low number in the line, they said. The officials wouldn't interview more than six to 12 applicants a day, and if you didn't get in with the first batch, forget it; you might as well go home and come back another day.
A 43-year-old divorced mother, Ms. Price said she had come to seek federal assistance because the $6 an hour she was earning as assistant manager of a doughnut shop in Rockville just wasn't enough to get by with anymore.
"They fuss if you work more than 40 hours a week. They don't like to pay overtime," she said of her employers. The small wage her 19-year-old son brought home from his part-time job at a bowling alley snack bar barely paid for the gas, she added, motioning to a battered 1983 Pontiac in the parking lot.
In an age of economic decline, Dreama Price typifies the new "clientele" of the food stamp program: lower income people who can no longer get by on the small earnings that, barely a year ago, seemed adequate enough.
The rise in food stamp dependents may turn out to be "the single best indicator of a rise in poverty levels across the country," said Robert Greenstein, a former director of the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service who now heads the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
While official unemployment figures have remained fairly constant in recent months, Mr. Greenstein notes that food stamp numbers have risen steadily through the year instead of declining in the late summer as they have tended to do in previous years. "This suggests that the recession is having a bigger impact on people in the lower income levels than is generally believed," he said.
Although the food stamp program was originally designed to stimulate the agricultural economy while helping the poor, the program also stimulates sectors of commerce, says agricultural economist William Motes.
"There is a total multiplier effect," he said, pointing out that providing poor people with food stamps frees money to be spent on other commodities.
Meanwhile welfare advocacy groups, as well as the Select Committee on Hunger, have expressed concern that the federal authorities may be about to prune back efforts by Congress to improve accessibility and the operation of the food stamp program.
"It's hard enough to get food stamps," says Eileen Gillan of the Maryland Food Committee.
"You can't just go in and say 'I lost my job and I need some food stamps.' There's a mountain of paperwork, and it's hard work just to stay eligible."
Adds David Super of the Food Research and Action Center: "Thousands, or even tens of thousands, of people could be affected by this -- either lose benefits or be completely put off the program if [the administration] goes ahead with its original plans."
The advocates' concern stems from a set of draft regulations that the administration drew up to comply with the 1990 farm bill. In the bill Congress mandated changes to the food stamp program that were aimed at simplifying the application process and easing the paperwork burden for both applicants and administrators.
The Department of Agriculture, which administers and funds the food stamps, has promised to reconsider the regulations and come up with something more palatable to all concerned. Food activists say they are hopeful the regulations will be improved. The problem, they say, did not originate with the Agriculture Department but stemmed from one middle-level official in the Office of Management and Budget "who was less than sympathetic to the food stamp program."