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