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Originally published October 29, 2009 at 3:57 PM | Page modified October 29, 2009 at 6:01 PM

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Costco and the needy

Costco's decision to to accept food stamps at its warehouse stores helps those struggling to put food on the table and those struggling to accept a new picture of American hardship.

FEW eyebrows should arch at a decision by Costco Wholesale to accept food stamps.

It is surprising Costco had to think about it at all. Yet it did. The retailer earlier this year doubted there was enough demand to justify the move.

Time and a lingering recession inspired a reality check.

Costco's change of heart reflects a refined view of the economy. Recessionary challenges have pushed food-stamp reliance to an all-time high — about 36 million Americans now rely on the federal assistance program.

In Washington, about 420,000 families receive food stamps, up 30 percent from a year ago. The average allotment is $248 a month. A smart shopper can buy a lot at Costco for $248.

By Thanksgiving, Costco plans to accept food stamps in at least half its 410 U.S. stores, including 28 locations in Washington. The move softens the impact of economic hardship.

The wholesaler's $50 annual membership fee is not necessarily a deterrent. Families with numerous mouths to feed may find it an investment that pays off in lower grocery bills. Someone on public assistance today may have a Costco membership obtained in better times.

Which brings up a related point: Shifting economic realities redefine what constitutes being "poor."

No one should presume to know what a food-stamp recipient looks like. Food stamps — an out-of-date name since the 50-year-old program's benefits are now distributed via cards — are used primarily by people looking for a job, or who are employed but make so little they qualify for federal assistance.

Those handing over food stamps to a grocery-store cashier can be, and are, our neighbors and former co-workers. Good for Costco for realizing — and acting on — this new reality.

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