-- Some have advanced degrees and remember middle-class lives. Some work selling lingerie or building websites. They are white, black and Hispanic, young and old, homeowners and homeless. What they have in common: They're all on food stamps.
As the food stamp program has become an issue in the Republican presidential primary, with candidates seeking to tie President Barack Obama to the program's record numbers, The Associated Press interviewed recipients across the country and found many who wished that critics would spend some time in their shoes.
Most said they never expected to need food stamps, but the Great Recession, which wiped out millions of jobs, left them no choice. Some struggled with the idea of taking a handout; others saw it as their due, earned through years of working steady jobs. They yearn to get back to receiving a paycheck that will make food stamps unnecessary.
"I could never have comprehended being on food stamps," said Christopher Jenks, who became homeless in his hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul after a successful career in sales and marketing.
He refused to apply for several years, even panhandling on a freeway exit ramp before finally giving in. A few months ago, while living in his car, he began receiving $200 per month.
"It's either that or I die," said Jenks, who grew up in a white, middle-class family and lost his job in the recession. "I want a job. So do a lot of other Americans that have been caught up in this tragedy."
In 2011, more than 45 million people – about one in seven Americans – received benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the most ever. Fewer than 31 million people collected the benefits about three years earlier.
Forty-nine percent of recipients are white, 26 percent are black and 20 percent are Hispanic, according to Census data.
Food assistance emerged as a campaign issue after statements by GOP candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum about African-Americans, the poor and Obama, whom Gingrich labeled the "best food stamp president in American history."
Critics accused Gingrich of seeking votes by invoking racial stereotypes about black welfare recipients with comments like "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." Challenged at a GOP debate this week on whether the rhetoric was insulting, Gingrich insisted it was not and received a standing ovation from the South Carolina audience.
Linda Miles is grateful to have food stamps, although she's not happy about why she needs them. An Army veteran with a master's degree, Miles, who is black, was laid off as a substitute teacher in Philadelphia amid deep budget cuts. After facing an empty refrigerator for too long, she recently started receiving $200 per month in food aid.
"Food stamps are essential, especially with the economy in the shape it's in," she said. "I pay taxes. I don't steal anything from the government. I paid my dues to society; I'm a veteran. You took something from me by taking away my job. I wouldn't need food stamps if you hadn't taken my job."
Miles started an unpaid internship this week, and also was certified to work in early childhood care while she looks for a permanent job.
"I'm not one of these people who sit on their butt and just collect a check," Miles said. "I've got a resume three pages long."
Ronnie McHugh was watching the GOP debate from home in Spring City, Pa. When Gingrich received the standing ovation, McHugh got so angry that she turned off the TV.
"I'd give a million dollars if I could find a job. I'm 64 years old, and no one wants to hire me," said McHugh, who is white, divorced, has no savings and lives off $810 per month in Social Security.
"I would like them to sit in my shoes," she said of the debate audience. "I would tell them I had a husband who made $150,000 a year, I had a good salary. We were both laid off at the same time by the same company, and I've never been able to rally from that."
"If they had a chance to sit in my shoes, they would be happy to have a program to help people who did work all their life."
Some critics say the Obama administration's policies have pushed people into dependency on food stamps. Eligibility rules were broadened in 2002 and 2008 before Obama took office; his 2009 stimulus package relaxed some work requirements and temporarily increased payouts.
For others, the recession, which pushed the unemployment rate as high as 10 percent and increased poverty, is the primary culprit.
The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger has seen a doubling of enrollments in suburban counties, with a smaller increase in the city itself. "These are much higher-income areas," said Julie Zaebst, the coalition's policy center manager. "This is part of the evidence showing that the most important reason for the growth in the program was the recession."
It was an injury that pushed Russell Johnson of Morgantown, W.Va., over the edge. He held down a steady refrigeration job until he fell off a roof six years ago. On Wednesday, he and his wife, Carolyn, used their food stamp card to buy $64.71 worth of groceries. That was more than half of their $102 monthly benefit.
"It's not enough, but it helps," Carolyn said. "I think it's a great program for the people who need it."
The Johnsons, who are white, maintain a big garden, hunt, fish and buy in bulk, like the 50-pound sack of potatoes in their cart. Carolyn also is disabled; they receive $763 per month in total disability payments.
They are furious with Gingrich. "I'd rather work than be on food stamps, but, I mean, my body says no. So what am I gonna do?" Russell said. "If I sit for too long, my back starts hurting and my leg goes numb. If I stand too long, the same old thing. And if I walk too much, my legs give out like they ain't even there."
He said the people criticizing food assistance eat at fancy restaurants and pay $25 for a sack of potatoes.
"Me, I'm dang lucky to get to go to McDonald's," Russell said.
About half of those receiving food aid are children. In Fresno, Calif., Josephine Gonzales has received assistance since becoming pregnant with her first child last fall. She is trained as a medical assistant and previously worked at an elementary school, but hasn't found a new job since giving birth.
"I use food stamps because I'm a single mom and I don't work, so I need a way to survive," said Gonzales, who is Hispanic. "Instead of spending the little cash I have on food, I can spend it on diapers and other things for my baby. It's just a small help. It's not making our lives luxurious."
Twanda Graham of Montgomery, Ala., started receiving food stamps when she graduated from high school 22 years ago. She has worked all that time, currently in a clothing store. She is unmarried with four children, and said she does not earn enough to feed her family.
Graham, who is black, believes she is paying for her assistance with taxes withheld from her paycheck: "They are not giving me anything for free."
Victoria Busby of Oklahoma City is a white single mom with two children. She has received food assistance intermittently since her first child was born two years ago. A high school graduate, she works part-time building websites for a manufacturing company, and aspires to become a nurse.
She is not ashamed about receiving aid. "I don't feel bad about it because my children need to eat. It's helped quite a bit."
Sophia Clark is a film school graduate in New York City who works part time at Victoria's Secret while she freelances on movie productions. In December she began receiving $130 per month because she couldn't afford to buy food after paying for rent, college loans and her cell phone.
"It was never, ever my intention to rely on public assistance in any way," said Clark, who is black and unmarried with no children.
Clark was recently entertaining a guest in the Bronx apartment she shares with her uncle when the dinner conversation turned to food stamps. The guest emphatically stated that his tax dollars should not feed people who prefer welfare over work.
She asked the guest if he had enjoyed the pasta with homemade pesto sauce. He had. "Do you find me a lazy person?" Clark asked. Not at all, the guest replied.
"Well," Clark said, "you just ate a dinner that was purchased with food stamps."
Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Jackson, Miss., Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., Carrie Schedler in Indianapolis, Vicki Smith in Morgantown, W.Va., Tim Talley in Oklahoma City and Gosia Wozniacka in Fresno, Calif., contributed to this report.