Spotlight Exclusives

What the Food Stamp Program Can Teach Us About Fighting Poverty

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One of the important success stories in low-income policy during this decade has been the Food Stamp Program. It has achieved broad-based political support and reached more people in need during a period of generally stagnating or declining spending on other forms of assistance to low-income households, such as unemployment insurance, TANF cash welfare and child care assistance.

In fact, at a time when poverty numbers rose and other government supports fell, the Food Stamp Program۪s strength and resilience have been among the few bright spots. In an article published last year, the National Journal called food stamps one of the 10 great successes in American society, describing the program as a “government reform that worked.”

As political momentum builds in the fight against poverty, much can be learned by looking at the successes and remaining weaknesses of the Food Stamp Program.

The last 10 years have produced a considerable detoxification of the political atmosphere around food stamps and a strengthening of the program. The proportion of eligible people receiving food stamps rose from 56 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2005, the last year data are available. The overall number of food stamp recipients increased from 17.2 million in an average month in 2000 to 26.5 million in an average month in 2007. Because of the nation۪s economic troubles, in the coming year, the number of people receiving food stamps is expected to hit 28 million, its highest level ever.

This growth has pushed more than $10 billion a year in desperately needed additional nutrition supports into the hands of low-income people. With the exception of Social Security, the Food Stamp Program now is roughly as large in the aggregate as any other public program that provides significant income support to low-income Americans.

It has been praised for its efficiency and hailed by economists across the political spectrum as one of the most important tools for stimulating the economy. In the recent debate over how to provide stimulus, Martin Feldstein, the Harvard economist and former advisor to President Reagan, and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, called an increase in food stamp benefits one of the quickest and most effective methods for jump-starting the economy.

Clearly food stamps have come a long way since the days of negative assertions about government fraud and waste. A combination of key reforms and effective outreach and advocacy helped food stamps maintain vital political support.

  • The replacement of food stamp coupons by electronic benefits cards (EBTs) has alleviated stigma at the grocery store check out line and strengthened the program۪s integrity. The result for elected officials is the kind of government benefit they can feel good about supporting.
  • The program۪s image has been strengthened by its focus on children, on working families (including those leaving welfare), and on disabled persons and seniors, as well as on unemployed workers. Following passage of the welfare legislation in 1996, which significantly weakened the Food Stamp Program, state program administrators, advocates, and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials under both Presidents Clinton and Bush continually characterized food stamps as a tool for working families that enables them to keep working. This approach ran counter to the negative stereotypes and strengthened food stamps politically.
  • The program connects family supports directly to the issue of hunger, which, for better or worse, has a resonance and power in our politics that “poverty” itself sometimes does not. (We saw this in the universal derision which met USDA۪s effort in 2006 to abandon use of the word “hunger” in its annual food security report.)
  • Food stamps have always maintained strong bipartisan support, stretching back to leadership on the issue in the 1970s by Senators Robert Dole and George McGovern. That support continues today, with numerous Republicans as well as Democrats in the Senate and House backing the program. Food stamps also have broad backing in the religious community, where reducing hunger has deep historical and biblical roots.
  • Food stamps bring to the table the support of disparate sectors, including the agriculture industry, food companies, grocery retailers, financial institutions that are EBT vendors, and the food bank and food pantry network.
  • There is considerable state and local official support for food stamps, in large part because benefits are 100 percent federally funded.
  • And food stamps come through quickly with relief for disaster victims. The program was rated among the very few federal government responses that were effective in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

To be sure, the Food Stamp Program still has structural weaknesses, and much room for growth. Benefits are too low for an adequate diet; asset rules are terribly outdated; and many of the arbitrary eligibility and benefit cuts enacted in 1996 have yet to be reversed. The Bush Administration۪s support (especially in 2002) for food stamp improvements has not been enough to fundamentally attack American hunger or offset the damage from other proposed program cuts. And while the 65 percent food stamp participation rate is much improved, it is still far too low.

The Farm Bill currently being negotiated in Congress would take the first modest steps to fix some of these problems. It would increase the minimum monthly benefit, which has not been raised since 1977, from $10 to $16 half of what it would be now if it had simply kept pace with inflation. The bill would also boost and index the standard deduction (stopping the ongoing loss to inflation suffered by households with three or fewer people) and would update the asset eligibility rules.

Without these and further improvements, food stamp recipients will too often run out of help in the third or fourth week of the month. And far too many will be forced to choose cheaper, less nutritious foods over the pricier fruits, vegetables and whole grains that the government itself says constitute a healthy diet.

The Food Stamp Program clearly still has a long way to go. Congress needs right now to enact the strongest possible nutrition title in the Farm Bill, and to include a food stamp benefit boost in a second stimulus package. These changes, combined with growing political will and a stronger presidential commitment to ending hunger, will lead to continuing improvements and a Food Stamp Program that better serves those who would face hunger without it.

James D. Weill is president of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C.

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