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.

| May/June 2012

  • Waiting-For-Food-Stamps
    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
  • Printing-Food-Stamps
    A government employee examines a run of food stamps in May 1974.
    U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE/FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/USDAGOV/PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

  • Waiting-For-Food-Stamps
  • Printing-Food-Stamps

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.”

DrMark Phillips
4/27/2012 3:28:03 AM

Was 1971 the most recent supportive photo you could get? GET A CLUE!: Socialism has never sustained or worked and never will! 16 trillion debt and growing is not sustainable. Those in need are hurt the most by progressive socialism.