Food Stamps Again a Vivid Symbol in Poverty Debate

Food Stamps poverty americans shopping grocery
Matt Rourke/AP

WASHINGTON -- Food stamps have figured in Americans' ideas about the poor for decades, from President Lyndon Johnson's vision of a Great Society to President Ronald Reagan's scorn for crooked "welfare queens" and President Bill Clinton's pledge to "end welfare as we know it."

Partisans tend to see what they want to see in the food stamp program: barely enough bread and milk to sustain hungry children, or chips and soda -- maybe even steak and illicit beer -- for cheaters and layabouts gaming the system.

Those differences were on display Thursday when the House voted to cut almost $4 billion a year, or 5 percent, from the roughly $80 billion-a-year program.

The House bill would tighten eligibility standards, allow states to impose new work requirements and permit drug testing for recipients, among other cuts to spending. A Senate bill would cut around one-tenth of the amount of the House bill, or $400 million a year.

Republicans argued that work requirements target the aid to the neediest people. Democrats said the swelling rolls -- more than 47 million people are now using the food stamps, or 1 in 7 Americans -- show that the program is working at a time of high unemployment and great need.

A look at the history and future of food stamps:

No more Stamps

These days, people in the nation's largest food aid program pay with plastic.

These special debit cards are swiped at convenience store or supermarket checkouts to pay for groceries. The cards can't be used for alcohol or cigarettes or nonfood items such as toothpaste, paper towels or dog chow. Junk food or high-priced treats are OK.

The first food stamps were a temporary plan to help feed the hungry toward the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The government subsidized the cost of blue stamps that poor people used to buy food from farm surpluses.

The idea was revived in the 1960s and expanded under Johnson into a permanent program that sold food coupons to low-income people at a discount. Beginning in the 1970s, food stamps were given to the poor for free. Benefit cards began replacing paper in the 1980s, a move designed to reduce fraud and ease the embarrassment food stamp users felt at the cash register.

Food stamps aren't the government's only way to feed those in need. There are more than a dozen smaller programs, including the one for Women, Infants and Children, and free and reduced-price school lunches.

In 2008, food stamps were officially renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Most people still know the name that's been familiar since 1939.

One in Every 7 Americans

In a nation of 314 million people, more than 47 million are eating with food stamps each month.

Who are they? Children and teenagers make up almost half, according to the Agriculture Department. About 10 percent are seniors.

The vast majority don't receive any cash welfare. Many households that shop with SNAP cards have someone who's employed but qualify for help because of low earnings.

The average food stamp allotment is $133 a person per month. The monthly amount a family gets depends on the household's size, earnings and expenses, as well as changing food prices and other factors.

Households can qualify for help with earnings up to 30 percent higher than the federal poverty level, making the limit about $30,000 for a family of four this year. These households are limited to no more than $2,000 in savings, or $3,250 if there are elderly or disabled residents.

In addition, most states allow people to qualify automatically for food stamps if they are eligible for certain other welfare programs, even if they don't meet the strict SNAP standards. Although food stamps are paid for with federal tax dollars, states administer the program and have some choices in setting requirements.

Language in Clinton's 1996 welfare overhaul required able-bodied adults who aren't raising children to work or attend job training or similar programs to qualify for food stamps after three months. But those work requirements across most of the nation have been waived for several years because of the high unemployment rate.

People who are living in the United States illegally aren't eligible for food stamps. Most adults who immigrate legally aren't eligible during their first five years in the country.

Rising Like Yeast

The cost to taxpayers more than doubled over just four years, from $38 billion in 2008 to $78 billion last year.

Liberals see a program responding to rising need at a time of economic turmoil. Conservatives see out-of-control spending, and many Republicans blame President Barack Obama. While seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, Newt Gingrich labeled Obama the "food stamp president."

Some of the growth can be attributed to Obama's food stamp policies, but Congress' budget analysts blame most of it on the economy.

The big factors:
  • The SNAP program is an entitlement, meaning everyone who is eligible can get aid, no matter the cost to taxpayers.
  • Millions of jobs were lost in the recession that hit in 2007. Unemployment is still high, and many people who have jobs are working fewer hours or for lower pay than before, meaning more people are eligible.
  • Obama's 2009 economic stimulus temporarily increased benefit amounts; that boost is set to expire on Nov. 1. Time limits for jobless adults without dependents are still being waived in most of the country.
  • Food stamp eligibility requirements were loosened by Congress in 2002 and 2008, before Obama became president.
  • Fluctuating food prices have driven up monthly benefit amounts, which are based on a low-cost diet.
Fewer to Feed?

The number of people using food stamps appears to be leveling off this year, and long-term budget projections suggest the number will begin to fall as the economy improves.

Why is it taking so long? Although the jobless rate has dropped from its 2009 peak, it remains high, leaving a historically large number of people eligible for food stamps. Since the recession began, a bigger portion of people who are eligible have signed up for food stamps than in the past.

Many people who enrolled during the worst days of the recession still qualify for SNAP cards, even if they are doing a little better now. For example, they may have gone from being laid off to working a low-paying or part-time job.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts in about a decade the number of people using food stamps will drop to 34 million, or about 1 in every 10 people.

Food and Fraud

Abuse was a worry from the start. The 1939 food stamp program was launched in May and by that October a retailer had been caught violating the rules.

There's been progress along the way, especially after the nationwide adoption of SNAP cards, which are harder to sell for cash than paper coupons were. The government says such "trafficking" in food stamps has fallen significantly over the past two decades, from about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to a penny per dollar in 2008.

But many lawmakers say fraud is still costing taxpayers too much. Some people lie about their income, apply for benefits in multiple states or fail to quit the program when their earnings go up. Recipients must tell their state agency within 10 days if their income goes over the limit.

Some stores illegally accept food stamps to pay for other merchandise, even beer or electronics, or give out cash at a cut rate in exchange for phony food purchases, which are then reimbursed by the government.

Food and Farms

In Congress, it's a marriage of convenience.

Food stamp policy has been packaged in the same bill with farm subsidies and other agricultural programs since the 1970s. It was a canny way of assuring that urban lawmakers who wanted the poverty program would vote for farm spending. That worked until this year, when conservatives balked at the skyrocketing cost of food stamps.

In June, a farm bill that included food stamps was defeated in the Republican-led House because fiscal conservatives felt it didn't cut the program deeply enough.

In response, GOP leaders split the food and farm programs in two. The House passed the farm version in July and the food stamp version on Thursday. Both passed with narrow votes.

The House and Senate versions must be reconciled before the five-year farm bill can become law, and that won't be an easy task.

Food stamps remain in the farm bill passed by the Senate. That bill made only a half-percent cut to food stamps and the Democratic-led Senate will be reluctant to cut more deeply or to evict the poverty program from its home in the farm bill. Obama supported the cuts in the Senate bill, but has opposed any changes beyond that. The White House threatened to veto the House food stamp bill.

What Now?

The current farm and food law expires at the end of the month.

If the two sides can't agree by then, a likely scenario, Congress could vote to extend the law as it is, at the expense of many planned updates to agricultural policy. There won't be much urgency to do that until the end of the year, when some dairy supports expire and milk prices could rise.

Other farm supports won't expire until next year, but farmers have been frustrated with the drawn-out debate that has now lasted two years, saying they need more government certainty as they manage their farm operations.

SNAP benefits would still be available for now. While farm bills set food stamp policy, the money is paid out through annual appropriations bills that so far have left benefits intact.

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too may times have i seen those on food stamps buying several boats of steaks and chicken and very little or no fresh produce. i guess it would be asking too much to allow food stamps on a percentage of what they earned on thier last job. and for those that will not work.......cut them to hell off.

September 23 2013 at 5:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

It would be more efficient if they wanted to correct the corruption just hand out a bag of groceries. No more irresponsible uses or purchases can be made..............

September 23 2013 at 4:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Someone somewhere has to put a limit on what people can use these cards for!!!! If i am poor and need help from the government I am not going to use 3/4 of my food stamp money on the first of the month to buy steak, crab legs, and a full-size sheet cake from an in-store bakery. Then my kids go hungry the rest of the month. I work in a grocery store I see it every month. They need to have there picture on the card and if its not them dont take it..... but then people always know how to work the system.... Its a real shame our country is like it is.......................

September 23 2013 at 9:50 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

We all complain,yet the same people we complain about keep their jobs. In many cases when goverment officals offer free anything ,they get voted back in . If you are getting a few, hundred dollars a month or less for food stamps. A job paying minimum will more then cover it.

September 23 2013 at 8:19 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Blame Bush is getting old now,,,,5 years of Obama nothing has changed,,,!!!!
It is not Dem...or Rep......IT IS WASHINGTON IN GENERAL.!!!!!
And,,Obama Care,,,,,,,,is not all about insurance,,,it is about destroying the American way of life,,,,,,AND,,IT IS WORKING.!!!!!!
Obama SAID,,,hope and change,,,,,,,,well,,,he hoped it changes,,and,,,it is working.!!!! 3RD WORLD AMERICA,,,,,,OTHER COUNTRIES LOVE IT.!!!!

September 23 2013 at 6:46 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

People,,,Comes down to it,,,both parties in Washington are CORUPT.!!!!!!
Add all the benefits Welfare People get,,,,,,,,they make more money than you do.!!!!

NO TAX TO PAY ON IT.!!!!!! FREE UNEARNED MONEY.......And,,lay in bed with your legs spread wide open,,,get more money UNWED BABY MONEY.!!!!!!

September 23 2013 at 6:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Food stamps are not free, they have to be purchased. Millions of Americans now live in full family dwellings - the parents, sons and daughters, and minors all live in the same house. Usually only one of them has a job and even that is a minimum wage position. Food stamps are how these people survive. Transportation is a major issue for these people - the wage earner either has a bike or gets a ride. I know this because I've given many rides - it's irritating.
Soon roadside bike paths will be a necessity, not an option.
The regular paying manufacturing jobs have gone overseas.
Manufacturing in the US has been taxed into obsolescence.

September 23 2013 at 6:03 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to alfredschrader's comment

Sorry,,,,,,to many excuses !!!!!!! why not all get a job,,,combine money....
instead of taking my hard earned tax dollars.!!!!

September 23 2013 at 6:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

These people as you call them,,,,there parents and there parents were the same,,,,,,,,,,Generation of welfare people,,,,,,Never want no more than the government can them ,,free.!!!!! Now,,,some do get out of proverty,,but,,most are content.!!!!!!!
And,,The Government loves there VOTES,!!!!!!!!! I am talking about all races,,not just one...

September 23 2013 at 6:49 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Two years ago I lost my job and was on unemplyment bring in $265/week. I had rent, car payment, insurance and utilities to pay. While I was looking for a job, I applied for food stamps in hopes it would help me out a little. I got $16/month. .

September 23 2013 at 5:32 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to citykitty123's comment

You were the wrong color.!!!!!!! I know this is true,,,,I knew a woman that had never needed food stamps......she applied,,,,offered $21.00,,,,
Again,,,,wrong color.!!!!! or race.!!!!!!

September 23 2013 at 6:41 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Mr. Phelps

If only the congress was aggressive & willing to cut the real \"Welfare Queens\", who are given tax free or tax deferred corporate subsistance year after year. They avoid paying one dime of tax to the counrty through vvarious off shore schemes.

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September 23 2013 at 5:22 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

i see people in the checkout line that eat better than my family. fancy steaks,lobster etc. the fraud is also unreal. a lot of those ebt cards are sold for half price so they have money to buy their booze or pot... we are paying for it. being sold like that is a problem. there is an easy fix-----you have to show a photo i.d. when using it....that way if its not you, it wouldnt be accepted.

September 23 2013 at 5:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nos2001's comment

anyone at anytime can go to any grocery store and SEE the food stamp fraud and abuse! if its that obvious and in the open it needs to be controlled so only the TRULY NEEDY receive the benefits!

September 23 2013 at 5:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply