The American Food Stamp Program: A Handout That Feeds
Despite Republican criticism and race-baiting, millions of people facing unemployment and underemployment have been lifted above the poverty line by the food stamp program.
Migrant worker families sign up for food stamps in Florida after a natural disaster in 1971.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE/FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/USDAGOV/PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION
Just past Fifth Avenue, where the gourmet food shops shift into dollar stores and 14th Street turns suddenly seedy, there is a squat, metal-sided building coated in grime that still bears traces of postwar optimism (it was built in 1946), but mostly it looks haggard.
This is the home of the Waverly Food Stamp Center, one of 18 such centers in New York City. On a recent Monday morning, it was choked with visitors—men, women, kids in strollers. They came in waves, which got sucked upward in two tin-can elevators and then spit out into a room that one applicant, Erica, described as “really hot,” “crowded,” and “loud.” It was the kind of place where no one seemed to be in control, and where anyone who might be in control didn’t seem to care. And yet somehow, Erica said, the place functioned. Despite hoops and hurdles, visitors frequently walked out with the help they so desperately needed.
“They do assist you,” said a middle-aged man who asked to be identified by his nickname, Mr. Monk. He had lost his job, then his home, to the recession. Still waiting to see if his welfare application would be accepted, he’d already received an emergency food stamp disbursement.
Welcome to the food stamp system: decaying, inundated, and one of the most unexpectedly effective safety net programs still standing. Indeed, the food stamp program, more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, still works remarkably well, all things considered. While other social safety net programs, like public assistance (more commonly called welfare), public housing, and even unemployment insurance, have been thoroughly hobbled, the food stamp program is one of the defining reasons more Americans were not as immiserated by this recession as they were by those in eras past.
The statistics tell the story. On any given day, nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers use electronic benefit cards to buy bread, milk, cheese, and other staples. Across the country, the number is 46.3 million, or one out of every seven people. And thanks to an infusion of $45.2 billion in stimulus money, SNAP has helped millions of unemployed and underemployed recession victims. In 2010 alone, the Census Bureau reports, food stamps—despite decades of on-again, off-again neglect, budget cuts, and Republican attacks—lifted 3.9 million people above the poverty line.
“Food stamps are really the only functioning part of the safety net,” says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger. “It’s the only thing left.”
A Snapshot of the Food Stamp Program
Born of the Food Stamp Act of 1977, which in turn was born of the anti-hunger movement of the 1970s, the modern-day food stamp system is accessible, far-reaching, resilient, and lean; overhead consumes less than 10 percent of its budget. True, its benefits are so stingy that many recipients survive on little more than a dollar a meal. True as well that it fails to reach three of every ten people who are eligible, helping explain how some 14.5 percent of this country’s households experienced food insecurity in 2010. Among those denied: a desperate mother of two who walked into a Texas food stamp center and took a supervisor hostage, ultimately killing herself and two kids.
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