Food Stamps

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Tim Boyle / Getty

Older, traditional food stamps

Just in case we needed more evidence of the hardship inflicted by the country's devastating economic crisis, earlier this month we got it: more Americans than ever are receiving food stamps. The Department of Agriculture reported that 35.1 million people relied on government help to buy groceries in June — 713,000 more than in the previous month and a 22% jump from the previous year's figure. The odds are better than ever that when a shopper wheels a grocery cart to the checkout aisle, Uncle Sam is picking up the tab.

The 70-year history of food stamps in the U.S. began in May 1939, when unemployed factory worker Mabel McFiggin collected stamps to buy surplus butter, eggs and prunes in Rochester, N.Y. McFiggin was the first person to take advantage of the experimental program, designed to improve on Depression-era commodity-distribution systems developed to aid the needy and unload surplus wheat and other products bought by the government to support farm prices. Food stamps originally came in two colors: recipients bought orange stamps, which could be used for any kind of food, and they were given half that amount in free blue stamps, which could be used to buy designated surplus foods (all but the most destitute had to make some payment to receive food stamps until 1977). About 20 million people made use of the original food-stamp program, but its popularity dwindled as prosperity returned, and the program was stopped in 1943.

Advocates for the poor worked to revive the program over the following years. In 1959 — 50 years ago this month — Democratic Representative Lenore Sullivan of Missouri successfully championed a legislative amendment to launch a pilot food-stamp program to be run by the Agriculture Department. While the Eisenhower Administration showed little interest in the idea, President Kennedy's election the following year marked a major turning point: moved by the abject poverty he witnessed on the campaign trail in West Virginia, Kennedy authorized a three-year food-stamp program beginning in 1961. Following in McFiggin's footsteps, Mr. and Mrs. Alderson Muncy of Paynesville, W.Va., inaugurated the Kennedy-era program, buying a can of pork and beans on May 29, 1961, to help feed their 15-person household. The Food Stamp Act, making the program permanent, was passed by Congress in 1964; it swelled to a million recipients by 1966. Program enrollment and benefits continued expanding as national attention focused on the plight of the poor, especially in rural areas, spurred in part by the groundbreaking 1968 TV documentary Hunger in America. By 1975, nearly 20 million people were relying on food stamps.

A major change to the program came in 1977, when Congress stopped requiring payment for food stamps and distributed them to all recipients for free (the price had steadily decreased over time, until it represented just a fraction of the face value). The move dismayed a number of observers, who had supported the program as a means to help the poor help themselves, not as a direct government handout (the Agriculture Department had insisted on selling food stamps for fear of undermining the dignity of recipients). The policy created a backlash — some middle-class shoppers indignantly complained that food-stamp users were eating better than they were — and a number of restrictions on the program, including stricter eligibility rules, were added by Congress during the Reagan Administration and again under President Clinton's welfare-reform bills of the mid-1990s. Some measures, such as those that barred many legal immigrants from the program, were later reversed.

Today, literal food stamps are a relic — purchases are made electronically, on plastic cards resembling credit cards. In fact, it's not even called the food-stamp program any longer; in classic bureaucratese, it's now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Recipients' incomes and property values must be below a certain level for them to qualify. In June, the average monthly benefit came to $294 per household and $133 per individual. Recently, officials have worked to make the program more convenient, distributing electronic benefit-card readers to farmers' markets so food stamps can be used there and encouraging more stores to accept them as payment (Costco announced this year it will take food stamps at some New York City stores on a temporary basis). As an experiment, CNN reporter Sean Callebs spent the month of February relying on food stamps. Spending $176 — the maximum amount awarded by the state of Louisiana, where he lives — Callebs found that he could buy enough food, but only if he avoided snacks and most name-brand items. "I can tell you my pants are much looser," he said after the month was over.