Patricia A. O'Malley
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Food Stamp Program: Myths, Facts, and History
The Food Stamp Program Benefits the US Economy and Creates Jobs

November 12, 2013


Food Stamps. If you haven’t used them, you surely know someone who has. And you’ve heard all of the gripes and comments about “those people”. The Food Stamp Program has been a beloved right-wing piñata for 50 years. But it shouldn’t be that way.

Republicans have been crowing that food stamp participation has doubled during President Barack Obama’s administration. It has not. Monthly participation rose from an average 33,489,975 people in 2009 to 47,637,407 in July 2013. That is a 42 percent increase. Not 100%. That was during the worst recession since the 1930s Great Depression, and while the GOP steadfastly refuses to create any sort of jobs program for American workers.

Few Americans understand where the Food Stamp Program came from, how it works, or how it benefits all of us.

Food stamps were born during that depression. American farmers were in dire straits. They couldn’t sell their crops because consumers had little money to spend. And people went hungry. So President Franklin Roosevelt proposed a Food Stamp Program in 1938 to stimulate farm sales and feed hungry people at the same time.

The US Department of Agriculture administered food stamps because it was primarily a farm program. Three young USDA employees wrote the first food stamp regulations. They called them food stamps because benefits were delivered in the form of paper slips, similar to postage stamps.

Congress eliminated the FSP in 1943 because the US was at war, the economy had improved, and they thought that they didn’t need it any more.

During his presidential campaign, President John Kennedy saw a great deal of hunger and poverty throughout the country. In one of his first official acts as president in 1961, Kennedy ordered the USDA to explore the idea of resurrecting the Food Stamp Program. Congress authorized a pilot project in six counties. The same three USDA employees who had written the original regulations were assigned to do it again for the new program. They were near retirement age by this time, but they were the only ones who remembered much about the program. This time, they delivered benefits via paper coupons, resembling currency, but still called them “food stamps”.

The six pilot projects worked out the bugs, and Congress passed the Food Stamp Act of 1964, authorizing a full program throughout the US. By 1975, food stamps were available in all 3,144 US counties.

Participants had to buy their food stamps. An elaborate mathematical formula calculated how much a household would have to pay for their benefits. For example, a family might pay $50 for $80 worth of stamps. Congress, Kennedy, and the USDA all objected to that plan. But Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, refused to allow the bill to proceed to a vote on the Senate floor without this provision. He just couldn’t stand the idea that people “got something for nothing”. Thus, many families couldn’t scrape up the price, couldn’t get food stamps, and went hungry because of Jesse Helms.

Congress eliminated the purchase requirement in 1977. In 1996, Congress made some more changes and gave the states some flexibility to manage their programs.

In 1981, the USDA launched a pilot program in Reading, PA to test the feasibility of issuing food stamp benefits electronically on computer debit cards. That method is called “electronic benefits transfer”, or EBT. The program is not EBT. EBT is a BANKING term to define the method of paying SNAP benefits. There is no “EBT Program”. No one is “on EBT”. Other programs, including TANF (cash welfare), disability benefits, and some state unemployment benefits also use EBT cards. And THAT is how people can get cash through and EBT card. Not from the Food Stamp Program.

In June, 2004, the USDA eliminated paper food stamps and began issuing all benefits through EBT. There are no more paper food stamps. On October 1, 2006, Congress officially changed the name of the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Program Basics
The U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 gives Congress the power to enact food stamp and other public assistance programs.
The Congress shall have Power To … provide for the … general Welfare of the United States;

Congress reviews SNAP, and all USDA programs, every several years in a process called reauthorization, in the Farm Bill.
The federal government pays the entire cost of SNAP benefits, along with all federal administration and half of states’ administrative costs.

  • The total program cost was $78,445,450,000 in fiscal year 2012.
  • That averages $36.82 for a taxpayer earning $50,000 a year, according to the White House.
  • SNAP participation is confidential. The fact that you receive benefits does not appear on your credit records, or anywhere else. No one can get into your case file without a court order.
  • Other countries don’t use anything like food stamps to feed their low-income citizens.
    They provide enough cash assistance benefits to sustain a basic, decent, lifestyle.

Eligibility Requirements

  • If you want food stamps, you must file an application with your local welfare office, be interviewed, and provide documentation and verification of EVERY piece of information.

  • There is a combination of financial and non-financial requirements, too complex to list here.
  • Strikers, most college students, and certain legal immigrants are not eligible, regardless of their finances.
  • Illegal immigrants DO NOT qualify for SNAP. At all.
  • US citizen, legal immigrants who are children or disabled, and legal, permanent residents for at least five years can get SNAP benefits.

  • The maximum gross monthly income in the continental US, for a single person who is not elderly or disabled, is $931.
  • For a four person household it’s $1,921.
  • If your household is above that income limit, you do not qualify for SNAP.
  • If your income is below that limit, you may or may not be eligible, depending on several factors.

  • You do not have to be married or have children.
  • You do not have to be on welfare.
  • You can be working.
  • You can own a home, a vehicle, and have some savings.
  • There will not be a lien on your property.

  • SNAP is available all over the United States, not just in “poor” neighborhoods.
  • Homeless people can get SNAP benefits.
  • Unless you are working or enrolled in school or a job training program, you can only get SNAP for three months in any three year period.
  • Participation in other food assistance programs, such as WIC, school meals for children, etc. does not affect your eligibility for SNAP.
  • Victims of natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc. can have their lost or destroyed EBT cards replaced. Others may be eligible for emergency SNAP, even if they’re not normally eligible.

Program Benefits

  • The maximum monthly benefit for a single person is $200 and $668 for a family of four.
  • The average monthly benefit per person is $133.41.

What you can buy

  • Food or beverages for human consumption, except alcohol or hot, cooked foods
  • Seeds and plants to grow food for your own use.

You have the right to appeal decisions affecting your benefits, and to have a hearing on that appeal.

Participation Rates
The SNAP participation rate mirrors the economy; it increases when unemployment or poverty increase.
Republicans can’t figure out why that happens.
46,609,072 people in 22,329,713 households received SNAP benefits in 2012.
That’s about seven percent of the US population in 2012.

Household Characteristics
The average SNAP household size is 2.08 people.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
“Nearly 72 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children;
more than one-quarter of participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.”
That means that most SNAP recipients are too young, old, or disabled to work.
More than 30 percent of SNAP households have income from wages and most of the rest have a member with a work history.
Most SNAP households do not receive cash welfare benefits.

Barriers to Participation
According to USDA, only about three-fourths of all who are eligible for SNAP actually receive benefits.
Reasons for non-participation include:

  • Lack of information and misinformation about program requirements – people don’t know that they qualify.
  • Social stigma
  • Welfare office locations and hours

These same barriers have persisted for 50 years.
But the government can’t figure out how to fix it.

SNAP Benefits the US Economy
SNAP benefits enable low-income people to buy more food than they ordinarily could with only their own income. That increases the demand for food. That means that farmers, food processing companies, trucking companies, grocery stores, and their supplier companies have more business. And that creates jobs.
Moody’s Economy estimates that every dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.73 throughout the US economy for those businesses.

Thus, our $$78 billion investment last year created more than $130 billion in jobs and revenue for the food industry.
Although no retailer is required to participate in SNAP, more than 246,000 stores, farmers’ markets, direct marketing farmers, homeless meal providers, treatment centers, and group homes accepted SNAP in 2012. They wouldn’t participate if they weren’t making a profit.
No state is required to participate in SNAP, but they all do because they know it benefits their own economies.
SNAP also enables low-income people to rise from poverty and maintain their health so that they can participate in school and work.

The Current Situation
Congress temporarily increased SNAP benefits by about 13 percent as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the “Obama stimulus”. That increase expired on Nov. 1, 2013. That’s why all 48 million Americans receiving SNAP lost some of their benefits.
SNAP, a dozen other food assistance programs, and farm subsidy and development programs are up for reauthorization now. That gives Congress the chance to make major changes.
That’s where we are now. The House of Representatives and Senate passed different versions of the Farm Bill. A Conference Committee is now negotiating to resolve the differences.
SNAP funding levels are the biggest difference in the bill.
The October GOP government shutdown stunts delayed the conference process.

We all pay taxes or fees to support our local fire departments. Some people need their services, some don’t. We never know when or if we’ll need the fire department, but it’s good to know that they are there in an emergency. It’s the same situation with food stamps.

I was a food stamp advocate and expert for several years. I’ve helped thousands of families to get food stamp benefits, and lobbied Congress to improve the program. I’ve studied food stamp history, legislation, regulations, and data. I’ve trained dozens of people. No one knows more about the Food Stamp Program than I do. I also received food stamps for a few monrths while I was between jobs.  If you need food stamps, please don’t hesitate to apply. You’ve worked and paid for them, just like the fire department. “Those people” are just like you. They just got their before you did.

For more information:
US Department of Agriculture: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Fact vs. Fiction: USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Food Research and Action Center: SNAP/Food Stamps
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: Policy Basics: Introduction to SNAP
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: SNAP is Effective and Efficient
USDA SNAP Program Data
State SNAP Hotline Phone Numbers
Find out what government assistance programs you qualify for
Feeding Hungry People: Rulemaking in the Food Stamp Program; by Jeffrey M. Berry; Rutgers University Press, 1984.
Read the Constitution

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Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice