The number of working Americans turning to free government food stamps has surged as their hours and wages erode, in a stark sign that the recession is inflicting pain on the employed as well as the newly jobless.

While the increase in take-up is often attributed to the sharp rise in unemployment – which on Friday hit 9.7 per cent– the Financial Times has learnt that some 40 per cent of the families now on food stamps have “earned income”, up from 25 per cent two years ago.

The agriculture department, which runs the programme, attributes this rise to workers having their hours cut back.

“I’m sort of stunned, it seems like a dire warning . . . that even the jobs people are retaining in this recession aren’t at the wage level and hours level that they need to provide for their families,” said Heidi Shierholz, economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

The pace of outright job losses in the US has started to recede, prompting hopes that the labour market could be stabilising. Official figures on Friday showed that non-farm payrolls dropped by a better than expected 216,000 in August, but still marked the 20th consecutive month that the US economy has shed jobs.

Less attention has been paid to those still in the workforce, whose incomes are also being squeezed. The average working week is now about 33 hours, the lowest on record, while the number forced to work part-time because they cannot find full-time work has risen more than 50 per cent in the past year to a record 8.8m. Wages and benefits have decelerated.

The food stamp data suggest that “the labour market problems are more significant than you would expect, given just the unemployment rate”, said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo. “For me it suggests the consumer is not going to rebound or contribute to economic growth for the next year, as the consumer would in a traditional economic recovery.”

Consumer spending has traditionally been the engine of the US economy, making up about two thirds of GDP. Economists fear that people may be unwilling to resume that role.

Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the agriculture department, called the increased enrolment of working families “very significant”.

Food stamps are distributed once a month on electronic cards that can be spent at many grocery stores. The $787bn stimulus bill added about $80 (€55, £50) to a family’s monthly allowance, which now stands at an average $290.

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