Gripping fresh diplomas from Penn State in 1979, Suzan Neiger Gould and her husband, David Gould, were ready to cash in on the hard work that the world had told them was the price of admission into the middle class.

But it all crashed quickly after David was laid off from his research associate position. Suzan’s part-time job running after-school programs wasn’t enough to support the couple and their baby daughter in their State College home. “We had nothing to fall back on,” said Suzan, now 66, the executive director of Manna on Main Street, an anti-hunger nonprofit in Lansdale. “We ate cheap, almost spoiled food to get by.”

The couple signed up for food stamps, now known as SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “Even for two educated individuals like David [now a lawyer] and me,” Suzan added, “it was a struggle. ... So many people need the emergency food system.”

A U.S. Census Bureau analysis released earlier this month proved that:

More than one in three adults receiving SNAP had attended at least some college classes, and about one in seven had earned associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in 2017, the year of the most recently available data.

And even among participants in the federal program known as WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), one in five had college degrees.

There is a “broad socioeconomic range of adults who rely on government assistance,” according to the Census Bureau.

3 million got SNAP benefits

About three million college graduates, including 1.6 million bachelor’s degree holders, received SNAP benefits in 2017, according to the census. When the years 2020 and 2021 are closely studied, that number may well balloon, anti-hunger experts surmise, as so many people with degrees lost their jobs during the pandemic.

The data also showed that women and Black people made up a large share of those receiving SNAP benefits due to continuing gender and race inequities.

While nearly 53% of all people who earned bachelor’s degrees were women, almost 64% of SNAP recipients with bachelor’s degrees were women.

Similarly, the study said, Black people made up almost 9% of all adults with a bachelor’s degree. But Black people were about 25% of those with a bachelor’s degree who were also getting SNAP.

And, Hispanic adults made up almost 9% of all adults with a bachelor’s degree, but 18% of those with a bachelor’s degree who received SNAP were Hispanic people.

“Almost anyone, even people with degrees, can get into financial trouble with a divorce, a health issue, or a job loss,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “Many people use SNAP cyclically, or just once in a lifetime, to get back on their feet. There’s not any one type of SNAP client.

“That’s why when we are asked who gets SNAP, we always say, ‘SNAP recipients are you and me.’”

A bachelor’s doesn’t insulate you

Of course, on the whole, wages increase and unemployment declines with each level of post-secondary education a person achieves, said Carrie Welton, director of Policy and Advocacy at Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, a research advocacy organization that tries to help post-secondary students with food insecurity, racism, and homelessness.

“But,” she said, “that doesn’t completely insulate people from short- or even longer-term stands of poverty.”

It’s important to note when reading the census analysis that there’s a big difference between anyone who simply attended college for a while and a person who attained a degree, said sociologist Judith Levine, director of the Public Policy Lab at Temple.

“So many young people incur debt by going to college but not being able to finish the degree,” Levine said. “They have to pay back the loan without the credential,” and without landing the better-paying job a degree can bring.

And that can lead to the kind of straitened circumstances that compel a person to apply for SNAP benefits, she said.

Of course, college debt can destabilize anyone, even those with degrees, said Laura Napolitano, a sociologist at Rutgers University-Camden. “If you graduate from college with $100,000 in debt and can’t find a decent job, which is not super-uncommon, you could find yourself on SNAP,” she said.

That points to growing inequality in America, Napolitano added.

“We tell 20-year-olds to go to college,” she said. “They listen, do all they are told to do. But many of them are still going to find themselves behind the eight ball because it’s not just about hard work, it’s the resources you have.

“Kids whose parents pay for college are just better off than the kids of parents who couldn’t.”

College still pays off

“College still definitely pays off,” said James Ziliak, economist and director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. “It’s a key to financial security.”

And that will become more evident as we climb out of the pandemic and the economy starts moving again, he added. “As we regain steam,” he added, “things will continue to get lot better for the college-educated.”

But, acknowledging the census analysis, Ziliak offered a caveat: “Higher education doesn’t preclude people from periodic hardship from the vagaries of the business cycle or unexpected health shocks.

“For those reasons, SNAP will always be an important safety net.”