Oh SNAP.Posted: September 19, 2012
The other day I was browsing my trusted Facebook news outlet for fair and balanced journalism. I stumbled upon this article that one of my eight thousand friends had posted regarding commonly held food stamp myths. My food writing ears perked up at this prospect.
People were erroneously alarmed. “Food stamps are out of control!” The article exclaimed. “They’re screwing our budget and being handed out like candy to these people! Poor people eat up valuable government dollars and cause massive inefficiency! Obama is the food stamp president!”
Now what should have happened is that I should have been a little outraged that people really think this about food stamps. I should have also been comforted that the facts presented didn’t support the histrionic claims. That didn’t happen though. I just kind of shrugged at it and wondered what ever happened to those books of monopoly money dollars that I used to see as a kid. Where did they come from? Why were they there? Was the Government Peanut Butter that I used to hear about really as good as it was?
I have no idea about the peanut butter part, but the history of the food stamp is pretty interesting if you’re into hotly contested political measures.
The first food stamp program was instituted by the Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture in 1939. Overseen by administrator Milo Perkins, the first food stamp program basically sold multicolored food dollars to the financially destitute. For one actual US currency note recipients could buy four orange food dollars or two blue ones. The orange food dollars could be then used on whatever the family needed (edibly) and the blue ones were designated for foods that the government held in surplus.
The first food stamp program existed for four years and was seen more as a necessity due to overwhelming nationwide economic stress (much like we have today). During this time over 20 million Americans had some experience with the food stamp experience, but it actually was quite beneficial to us overall. By 1943 the program was dismantled as the nation had pulled itself up by its bootstraps. Excessive food surplus had been eliminated (less waste!) and widespread unemployment was down. Nobody starved. Everyone won. Thus, the program was put to bed and life went on.
Over the next 18 years we officially didn’t have a food stamp program. (I guess in those years you were poop out of luck if you were poor and hungry.) Many senators rallied for food stamp programs unsuccessfully in the 1950′s, backed with studies, reports and proposals. Finally, in 1959 the government authorized a food stamp program to be operated once again through the office of the Secretary of Agriculture. Success! Unfortunately, the Eisenhower administration chose not to implement this program. Fail.
President Kennedy did, however, in order to hold up a campaign promise. In 1961 he implemented pilot food stamp programs in pockets of the nation. These food stamp programs were fairly similar to the one implemented back in 1939 which made people buy their own stamps, but this time the programs did not include separate dollars for government surplus foods. This version instead chose to focus on encouraging recipients to buy perishable foods and also didn’t limit what the recipients chose to buy with their dollars.
In 1964 President Johnson made the food stamp program a permanent institution, noting that nutrition was improving amongst the lowest income families nationwide. The food stamp program was pretty much the same as what Kennedy had proposed and the original program was, but with a few twists. Johnson’s food stamp program designated that each state could set eligibility requirements for food stamps. Food stamp recipients could buy whatever they wanted outside of alcohol and imported foods with their stamps. This administration also ensured that everyone was eligible for food stamps based solely on income rather than race, religious creed, national origin or political beliefs and that the expenditures allowed for the federal food stamp program would be tiered over the next three years. No money wasted, nobody went hungry. Perfect!
Slowly and steadily the program grew during the late 1960′s and 1970′s, which meant that eventually the program had to be reevaluated and revamped to run efficiently. In 1977 the federal food stamp program underwent a major overhaul.
Eligibility for food stamps tightened up dramatically that year and also eliminated the need for recipients to pay for food stamps. The focus for the program was really to cover just the neediest people, not those living on the margins. For example, after the 1977 changes if you were a student or alien you were now going to have a bitch of a time to receive food stamps. If you were a head of the household and quit your job voluntarily, you were also out of luck. If your income exceeded the national poverty level you could not receive food stamps. Home visits for eligibility became more frequent. Also, it was going to take 30 days to process applications for food stamps (which was apparently much faster and streamlined compared to the old way). Although it sounds a bit draconian, these restrictions were really just implemented to prevent fraud and food stamp abuse as the program was so popular.
In the 1980′s the food stamp program got kind of wacky. In 1981 and 82 the federal food stamp program went under more cutbacks and continued to limit eligibility except to the absolute neediest. Stringent income and household size reporting was implemented. Retirement accounts were now considered an income. Applicants and recipients for food stamps had to show that they were actively job hunting. All kinds of fun stuff.
Ultimately these cutbacks and restrictions backfired, resulting in an increase in hunger problems nationally. In 1985 and 1987 eligibility for food stamps loosened up just slightly and benefits improved. During this period legislation was passed that foods purchased with food stamps were tax exempt, nutrition education and outreach was reinstated and more frequent reporting (to determine flexible benefit options) was instituted. Also, to deter fraud, higher penalties were issued for program violators.
The late 198o’s and early 1990′s ushered in the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which is exclusively used today. The idea behind the EBT card over paper dollars was to increase efficiency within the system and effectiveness with the recipients. Instead of having paper dollars issued (which were easy to lose or sell), food stamp recipients would have a flexible charge account similar to a credit card with a monthly stipend added to the account. In 1994 the EBT system was implemented in all 50 states. Some states may also use the EBT system as an alternative to the Women Infants and Children (WIC) benefit program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs.
Sounds heavenly, right? Well, more reforms were a’coming. I’m just going to speed this up a little as I’m sure you have stuff to do today.
In the mid nineties welfare reform measures changed how people were eligible for food stamps again. Rather than viewing food stamps as an indefinite crutch and forced people to stay within the system, personal accountability measures were passed. If you were not working at least 20 hours a week or actively seeking work (this included work programs), your eligibility for food stamps went down. Deductions were reduced and if you were a legal immigrant, good luck getting help there. Although the intentions were in the right place, the measures were also fairly stringent and didn’t work that well except for the case of reducing recipients. (Also to note, the economy was doing better back then anyways. That may have contributed to number reductions.)
So, most recently farm bills have been passed in 2002 and 2008 to make food stamps more accessible to people again. The 2002 bill included legal aliens who had been in the United States for over 5 years and those receiving disability benefits. This bill encouraged better quality control for reporting and rewarded states with low error rates. With this bill passed, the food stamp benefit program reporting became more streamlined and simplified, also eliminating high error rates.
The current reforms, passed with the 2008 farm bill basically safeguarded the future of food stamps in the short term. With the economic slowdown nationwide the enrollment for food stamps increased to 29 million people. The 2008 farm bill did a few things, mostly to continue to extend simplified reporting and administrative duties within the system. Reporting to note and disqualify people for fraud increased. Also, least dramatically, to lessen the stigma of being on food stamps overall, the name was changed to the SNAP program. There’s a lot of other changes too, but those were the highlights.
Ultimately, what I got out of this is that food stamp programs are a continual work in progress program. They advance two steps forward, take three back. One lateral, then back to the center. Either way, its interesting.