The American Food Stamp Program: A Handout That Feeds

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Migrant worker families sign up for food stamps in Florida after a natural disaster in 1971.
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A government employee examines a run of food stamps in May 1974.

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.

Yet SNAP’s essential effectiveness has enabled it not only to stave off food insecurity for millions but also to catch the overflow of need caused by the attack on other entitlement programs. Call it the safety net’s safety net.

“In terms of food security in this country, food stamps really are the foundational component of the safety net,” says Triada Stampas, director of government relations and public education for the Food Bank for New York City. “It is a program that by and large works.”

Since Ronald Reagan began sweeping away the buttresses of the welfare state, funding has regularly been slashed, eligibility tightened, and, during the Gingrich years, most immigrants banned from the program. Yet food stamps have enjoyed enough bipartisan support to avoid the radical disemboweling experienced by, say, the welfare system. The reason, at least in part, is the way the program has historically been framed: as a voucher (always Republican-friendly) supporting the working (and hence “deserving”) poor. As a result, funding has often been restored, some categories of documented immigrants have been readmitted to the rolls, and the program has retained sufficient flexibility to respond quickly when the need is greatest.

The past few years provide a textbook illustration of how the food stamp program works when it functions best. In 2007, before this country’s economic engine gave out, the number of people receiving food stamps hovered at 26.3 million, a number that had crept up steadily since the start of the decade, thanks to the 2001 recession and stagnating wages. Then the number of people participating in SNAP exploded, nearly doubling in four years as unemployment and underemployment rocketed ever higher. Given today’s unhappy economic reality, the spiking SNAP rolls are one of the clearest signs of a functioning food safety net.

“The program’s almost a model countercyclical program, in the sense that as more people are unemployed, as more people’s wages fall, food stamps can step in quickly and effectively to pick up some of the slack and ameliorate some of the pain,” says James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a prominent national anti-hunger organization.

Today’s food stamp legions are a diverse group, a cross section of ages, ethnicities, and biographies. They include Rosalinde Block, 59, a middle-class single mother in Manhattan, who lost nearly half her piano students as well as her freelance gigs and medical coverage at almost the same moment in 2008 when her son became seriously ill. They are double-barreled hardship victims like Carmen Perez-Lopez, who suffered a stroke followed almost immediately by a breast cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2009 and quickly ran through her savings as she slogged through treatment. They are disproportionately women; roughly half of them are children. For many of them, food stamps have made all the difference.

“They actually rescued me–they gave me food when I had none,” says Perez-Lopez, a former office manager who was reduced to subsisting on the free nutrition bars handed out by her cancer clinic. Unable even to afford bananas, she was weak and losing weight–until an advocate at the Food Bank for New York City helped her navigate the food stamp application process. “Oh, I went to buy milk, I went to buy broccoli and cabbage and eggs . . . it feels so good,” she says of her first food stamp shopping excursion.

“I guess food is essential, huh?” she half-jokes.

Yes, food is essential. But it is also a source of economic growth, a stimulus. A 2008 study by Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economic & Consumer Credit Analytics, found that every government dollar spent on food stamps lifts GDP by $1.73, making it the most effective way to inject money into the economy. “People who receive these benefits are hard-pressed, and will spend any financial aid they receive very quickly,” writes Zandi, one of John McCain’s economic advisers during his presidential campaign, hardly a bleeding heart. This money, in turn, disperses outward to store clerks, store owners, truckers, and farmers, who then feed it back into the economic loop.

Small wonder, then, that the program is widely popular. In a 2010 FRAC poll of registered voters, 74 percent said food stamps are “very or fairly important for the country,” and 71 percent said that cutting food stamps would be the “wrong way for Congress to reduce spending.”

Government Assistance Under Fire

Given the program’s popularity and its strengths as an anti-poverty program and recession buster, one could be forgiven for assuming that food stamps are enjoying widespread government support right now: that Congress would be debating funding increases, not cuts, and that the administration would be working hard to bolster one of its more effective stimulus initiatives.

And yet.

The nation’s food stamp program has come under increasing pressure from the reverse Robin Hoods who have taken aim at the government and the Democratic leaders who quake before them.

House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, in his Path to Prosperity plan, recommended garlanding the rich with yet more tax cuts while carving $127 billion (almost 20 percent) from the food stamp program over the next 10 years, imposing time limits on benefits and converting the system into block grants. Echoing the arguments used to attack welfare 15 years earlier, Ryan warned against transforming the safety net into a “hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cautioned that the Ryan plan would have thrown “millions of low-income families off the rolls, cut benefits by thousands of dollars a year, or some combination of the two.”

Ryan’s proposal was defeated, but not without winning the support of almost every Republican in the House. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has been lobbing anti-SNAP bombs for months, but his most infamous, issued in May 2011 and repeated in December, was calling Obama the “food stamp president”–a declaration of barely coded racism that harked back to decades of racially inspired attacks on food stamps, most notably Reagan’s slur about “strapping young bucks” dining out on T-bone steaks. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican with a record of race-baiting, last fall led a charge in the Senate to “reform” food stamps by restricting eligibility and undoing a planned $9 billion budget increase, supposedly to crack down on fraud and government excess. (Notably, food stamp errors have reached record lows in recent years: only 2.7 percent of program costs in 2009, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported.)

The deep racism at the heart of conservative food stamp critiques offers at least one clue as to why the Obama administration has been unable or unwilling to champion SNAP as a valuable recession antidote: As the nation’s first African American president, Obama is vulnerable to racist innuendo, which his opponents are only too happy to exploit. Just two months after Gingrich made his “food stamp president” comment, another would-be president, Rick Santorum, picked up the theme, accusing Obama, absurdly, of “pushing more people on food stamps.”

It’s not easy to sell the positive side of skyrocketing food stamp enrollment. That food stamps have performed admirably during the recession, catching those in need and stimulating the economy, is small consolation when the economy continues to stagnate and unemployment hovers at just under 9 percent. Living-wage jobs would be far preferable to an economy so broken that 46 million people need food stamps.

And yet, none of this explains the Obama administration’s failure to defend a clear policy success. Or why the administration along with congressional Democrats bargained away some $14 billion in food stamp funding in 2010, hacking more from the program than George W. Bush ever did. Or why the Democrats on the Agriculture Committee agreed to recommend $4 billion worth of SNAP cuts to the mercifully failed “supercommittee.” Or why Democratic leaders like Dick Durbin, Charles Schumer, and Patrick Leahy failed to sign on to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s passionate letter imploring the supercommittee to protect SNAP.

“Who are the liberal lions anymore?” one advocate laments.

Liberal lions–more precisely, full-throated defenders of a common, socially contracted good–do seem woefully scarce. Obama seems to have some kind of social contract vision, but it is based largely on compromise, on the social contract as process, not values. This is all well and good until you’re forced to go up against a pack of social Darwinists who have no values or belief in process.

Then again, maybe the fight was never completely up to him. Maybe it’s been up to us all along.

When the Food Stamp Act was passed in 1977, making food stamps free and nationwide for the first time, it bore the distinct traces of the blood and sweat of the newborn anti-hunger movement. “Most of the nation’s leading anti-hunger groups were founded during a 14-year period starting in 1970,” writes Joel Berg in his book All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America? “Not coincidentally, the nation’s greatest advances in reducing hunger came in the same decade.”

Many of the groups that fought for the Food Stamp Act still exist, but as progressives dived into the culture and terror wars they all but forgot the anti-poverty wars. Maybe now is the time to revive them.

Excerpted from The Nation (December 14, 2011), a progressive publication that weighs in weekly on politics, arts, and culture. Copyright © 2011 The Nation.

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