Food Stamps Essay

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Food  stamps,  the brainchild of Secretary  of Agriculture  Henry  A. Wallace,  have been an intermittent  part  of  U.S. history  since  1939.  From  the outset, liberals conceived of food stamps as part of the  social safety net.  In recent  decades,  however, conservatives  have increasingly  viewed food stamps   as  a  liability.  According   to  them,  food stamps  discourage  work  and  promote an entitlement mentality. This line of thought fails to acknowledge  that   most   food   stamp   recipients work. The low pay of so many jobs in the United States makes it difficult for poor people to support themselves  despite   working.   In  this  context,   it appears  rational to offer them  government assistance, in this case in the form of food stamps.

The Great Depression And The First Experiment  With Food Stamps

The Great Depression revealed that hunger was widespread throughout the United States. That the federal   government  took   so  long  to  act  seems strange given President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reputation as  a  champion of  government aid  to those  in need. Indeed, the initial  impetus  for food stamps   did  not   come  from   the  president.   But Wallace,  who  had  amassed  a fortune  developing and  selling varieties  of hybrid  corn,  envisioned  a system that  would  link the poor  to surplus  food. The two Agricultural  Adjustment Acts of Congress allowed  the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to buy surplus wheat and other commodities to keep prices stable. The question  was “What should  government do with  the surplus?” Export was one solution,  but Wallace conceived of a program  to allow  the poor  to buy this food  at a discount.  The  program would  thus  benefit  farmers, the government, and the poor.

President Roosevelt saw the wisdom of this approach  and  asked  Congress   to  empower   the USDA to  issue vouchers  to  the  poor  to  purchase food. These vouchers were paper coupons, but they were not  free. A book  of orange  stamps  cost  $1, and a book  of blue stamps  cost 50 cents. Coupons from  the orange  book  could  be redeemed  for any type  of food,  though  the  blue  vouchers  were targeted at those foods that  government deemed surplus  and  that,  without the  participation of  food stamp recipients, might go to waste. This first food stamp  program served 20 million Americans  at an aggregate   subsidy   of   $262   million.   The   first American  to  receive food  stamps  was  the  unemployed  Mabel  McFiggin  in Rochester, New  York. The first grocer to accept food stamps  was Joseph Mutolo. Congress  ended  this initial  experiment in 1943,  believing that  wartime  prosperity had  banished  hunger,  making  it unnecessary  to  subsidize the purchase  of food.

The Recrudescence Of Food Stamps

Even after  Congress  ended  food  stamps  in 1943, some in Congress never forgot them. In 1959, Congresswoman Leonor K. Sullivan convinced her colleagues  in the  House  and  Senate  to  reinstitute them,   though   President   Dwight   D.  Eisenhower never authorized the USDA to issue food  stamps. In any case, the conservative Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson likely opposed  food stamps.

With  Eisenhower’s  departure from  the  White House,  his successor,  John  F. Kennedy,  decided  in 1961  to  initiate  a  trial  period  during  which  the USDA could reissue food stamps. These new food stamps   were  all  of  one  kind.  The  USDA  agent Isabelle Kelley had oversight  of this new program. She was the first woman  in the USDA to head the food  stamp  program. In 1961,  the Muncy  family of Paynesville, West Virginia, was the first recipient of these new food stamps. With 15 mouths  to feed, the  Muncys   were  desperate   for  this  assistance. After  President  Kennedy’s  assassination in  1963, his successor, Lyndon  Johnson,  made food stamps a national priority. They  were  part  of his multipronged  assault  on poverty. In 1964,  the president convinced Congress to make food stamps a permanent  part  of  the  social  safety  net.  This  new  law gave states  some  flexibility  in developing  criteria for acceptance  into the program. The law aimed to help the poor  afford  a nutritious diet. They could not  buy  alcohol  or  imported food.  It  must  have been  difficult  to  identify  imports.   For  example, sugar  derived  from  sugar  beets  in  the  western United   States   is  indistinguishable  from   sugar derived  from  sugarcane   in  Mexico.  In  awarding food stamps,  the USDA could not discriminate  by race,  religion,  place  of  birth,  or  political  beliefs. The  USDA and  the  states  would  form  a partnership in determining who was eligible and in distributing food stamps.

In 1964,  Congress  spent  $75  million  on  food stamps;  in 1965,  $100  million; and in 1966,  $200 million. The USDA expected  expenditures to peak at $360  million. By April 1965,  food stamps  were available  to 500,000 Americans;  by March  1966, to more  than  1 million people;  by October 1967, to  2 million;  by February  1969,  to  3 million;  by February  1970,  to  4 million,  by May  1970,  to  6 million;  by February  1971,  to 10 million;  and  by October 1974, to 15 million Americans. It was not the  case that  more  people  had  suddenly  become impoverished during these years. Rather, states had expanded coverage to more Americans.

In 1971,  Congress  required  recipients  to work and set national standards of eligibility. Households could use no more than 30 percent of their income to buy food stamps.  Congress  also expanded food stamps  to Guam,  Puerto  Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and allotted  $1.25  billion for food stamps in the fiscal year 1971.  This expenditure was well above the congressional estimate of 1966. In 1973, Congress required states to make food stamps available for all eligible Americans. Alcoholics and drug abusers  were eligible so long as they were in treatment. Congress  extended  temporary benefits to  all  Americans   who   suffered   from   a  natural disaster.

In  1977,   Republicans   in  Congress   sought   to tighten   eligibility  requirements  in  fear  that   too many   people   received   food   stamps.   Arguably, though, the bill that  emerged  from  Congress  was not entirely conservative.  No longer would  recipients need to buy food stamps, a prevision that Congress   would   later  revisit.  Congress   set  new income  requirements and  allowed  individuals  to keep $1,750 in the bank.  The bill eliminated  benefits when the primary  breadwinner quit his or her job.  Native  Americans  on  reservations were  now eligible for  food  stamps.  The  bill required  recipients to read government literature on healthy  eating.  The  bill  mandated that   government  decide whether  to  grant  eligibility  within  30  days  of an application. Congress   increased   aid  to  states  to track  down  instances  of fraud.

In the  1980s,  President  Ronald  Reagan  and  a conservative Congress targeted food stamps for creating a culture of dependency. Congress reduced eligibility for many Americans and eliminated food stamps in Puerto Rico, another issue that Congress would later revisit. Congress limited senior citizens’ access  to  food   stamps.   Because  of  Republican policies,  many   Americans   went   hungry,   leading Congress  to revisit its policies. Between 1985  and 1987, Congress allowed recipients to purchase food stamps without sales taxes and allowed each household   to   keep   $2,000  in   the   bank.   Homeless Americans   were   now   eligible  for   food   stamps. Between 1988 and 1990, Congress again made food stamps  more  widely  available,  empowered social workers  to assist the poor  in applying  for benefits, and allocated  money to nutritional education.

The Election  Of 2012 And Beyond

During  the 2012  presidential race, the Republican candidate and former  speaker  of the House  Newt Gingrich  charged  President  Barrack  Obama with being “the  food stamp  president” as a way of suggesting that  the president  was too  liberal to merit reelection. This rhetoric aside, hunger remains a serious problem in the richest country  in the world. Forty-four million  Americans  need  food  stamps, which  are now  offered  under  the umbrella  of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance  Program.  One in seven Americans receives food stamps, the highest rate  in U.S. history.  Despite  cuts, food  stamps remain  a pillar of the social safety net.

Between December  2007  and  December  2009, the  number   of  food  stamp   recipients   increased nearly  50  percent.  More   than   three-quarters  of food  stamp  recipients  are  families  with  children. One-third of  the  families  on  food  stamps   have elderly or disabled  members.  More  than  one-third of the  recipients  are  white,  21  percent  are  black, and less than  10 percent  are Latino. The majority of recipients  therefore  are white, despite the claim that  blacks  benefit  disproportionately from  food stamps.  Given  the  prevalence  of racism  and  discrimination, it is surprising  that  more African Americans  are  not  on  food  stamps.  More  than 90 percent  of food stamp  recipients live below the poverty line. Forty percent of households make less than  $10,000 per year for a family of three. Three times  more  people  on  food  stamps  work  rather than  rely on  welfare.  In 2009,  food  stamps  kept 4.6  million Americans  out  of poverty.  More  than 2 million children and 200,000 senior citizens rely on  food  stamps  to  keep  them  above  the  poverty line. The cost of food stamps  is just $4.46  per person per day, far less lavish than some conservatives have suggested.

When   food   stamps   were  initially   conceived, they were made of paper. Later, government experimented  with  the use of both  paper  and  a plastic card  that  resembled  a credit  card.  Known  as an electronic benefit transfer  (EBT) card, the card was first  used  in 1984.  Between  1988  and  2004,  the USDA began the transition from paper  to the EBT card, so that  by 2004, recipients could use only an EBT   card.   Paper   was   no   longer   an   option. Doubtless,   the  conversion   from  paper  to  plastic has saved money. It has also eliminated  the danger that one’s coupons  might be lost, stolen, or sold, in which  case EBT cards  should  minimize  fraud.  Of course, it is still possible to lose one’s EBT card, so the system is not perfect.

In addition to  food,  the  qualifying  home  gardener may buy seeds in the hope of feeding his or her  family  to  some  extent.  Food  stamps  may  be used  at  a  grocery  store  but  not  at  a  restaurant. Food  stamps  may  be used  to  buy  take-out food. One may also use them to buy baby food and vitamin  pills.  People  unable  to  cook  may  use  food stamps   to  buy  prepared foods,  even  opting  for home  delivery. Food  stamps  must  be used to buy food.  They  cannot  be  used  to  buy  any  nonfood items, such as soap,  toothpaste, and  other  similar products. A food  stamp  recipient  must  not  have more  than   $2,000  in  the  bank   or  $3,250  if  a member  of  the  household  is  disabled  or  above age 60. By 2009,  the average monthly  benefit was $294   per  household  and   $133   per  individual, hardly lavish amounts.

The   history   of  food   stamps   illustrates   how socially  contested   poor  people’s  money  is. How they pay for food, what those payments  are called, and the kinds of stigma that accompany their acquisition remind  us that  money  is not  colorless or without character. It has meaning  in the public sphere.


  1. DiNitto, Diane M. and David H. Johnson. Essentials of Social Welfare: Politics and Public Policy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson  Education, 2012.
  2. Heuvel, Katrina   The Change I Believe in: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama. New York: Nation Books, 2011.

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