Food stamps again a vivid symbol in poverty debate

House votes to cut almost $4 billion a year from food stamps, a 5 percent reduction to the nation's main feeding program used by more than 1 in 7 Americans.
Associated Press
Sep 21, 2013

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.

Comments

donutshopguy

Dog,

All you give is negative responses to other people's opinions. How about offering your suggestions on creating more jobs, reducing the amount of unwed mothers or reducing the working poor.

How about real suggestions not snide remarks. We await you input.

The Big Dog's back

1st thing that needs to be done is infrastructure repair. The only ones that can do this is the Government. This would add millions of good paying jobs and the spinoff jobs would add even more. Then I would put a 90% tax rate on those would don't invest in their work force, i.e. living wages. If these 1% want to keep all the money for themselves then tax the crap out of them. Gov needs to pay for abortions and more importantly contraception and education.

Contango

Re: "I would put a 90% tax rate on those would don't invest in their work force, i.e. living wages."

A totally stupid communistic approach which would lead to capital fleeing offshore and an economic collapse which would make the Great Depression look like a Sunday picnic.

"If these 1% want to keep all the money for themselves then tax the crap out of them."

Gonna have a lot of rich Democrats, i.e. the Kennedys, the Kerrys, the Reids, the Pelosies, et. al. that aren't gonna like that.

The Big Dog's back

It wouldn't go offshore without being taxed. Good, tax those people you mention. I don't have a problem with it do you?

Contango

Re: "It wouldn't go offshore without being taxed,"

Nope. Your level of economic and financial knowledge is strictly pre-school.

As I've written MANY times:

When the Dems start taxing themselves heavily, then I 'might' start believing their spread the wealth BS.

The Big Dog's back

Why would Dems only tax themselves?

Contango

Re: "Why would Dems only tax themselves?"

Allow me to re-phrase:

When the Dems propose legislation for a wealth tax (1-3% annually of ALL assets) THEN I 'may' believe their share the wealth BS.

Besides, shouldn't a "rich Dem" be an oxymoron?

What the (bleep) do the Kerrys need with multiple houses? Wouldn't your idea of govt. be to confiscate all but one of 'em?

http://www.snopes.com/politics/k...

donutshopguy

Dog,

What do you consider a living wage? Please be specific in dollars and benefits.

Should this living wage be the new minimum wage?

The Big Dog's back

BTW, these are my opinions, unlike the right where opinions are formulated at right wingnut think tanks.

Contango

Re: "these are my opinions,"

You give yourself too much credit dunce.

Marx and Engles' economic idiocy was way before your time.

shucks

@ donutshopguy

"Less government and more personal responsibility is Right ?"

You left out the business factor.
If they don't hire , and according to Contango, they have "good" reasons not to hire, what's a person to do to survive?
They can only look to gov't , right ?

Contango

Re: "They can only look to gov't , right ?"

And govt. gets it's funding from where?

donutshopguy

4sizzle,

There are so many job available throughout the country. Just not the high paying, low skill positions the former generation had available. "What's a person do to survive?" Get a better education or skill.

The uneducated, unmotivated and unskilled workers need to step up and improve themselves. It's not the government's responsibility. It's your life, Right.

shucks

It's not as simple as that.

donutshopguy

Please explain in more detail. I am interested in your thoughts.

shucks

Thank you , but Informed's comments below are basically my thoughts.

2cents

"step up and improve themselves. It's not the government's responsibility. It's your life"

Yeppers! My old boss froze my pay because I did not finish college, I started a company and every step of the way people tried to push me down, even the Fed said sorry no construction funds for you, your a single white male. He-- now I pay 52% income tax and they want more! I lived and breathed my company for five years before seeing any return, after thirty years things were looking good until the downturn. Now time to realign everything and move on. It only takes commitment, you never know what is around the corner, so true with the current non direction administration.

Informed

You do realize that may of the people out of work or working low-paying jobs are college graduates, right?
When you are unable to leave the area because of family reasons or your spouse's job, do not have the funds to go back to college for a second degree because you are helping to put your kids through college, it's not as simple as the way you make it out to be.

donutshopguy

Informed,

These are personal decisions that are being made. Choices made that direct your life.

So you want the government or businesses to bring you high paying jobs that fit your skill set without any involvement on your part. Really? How do you suggest we incorporate this concept on a national scale?

Informed

Of course not. I was simply responding to a post in which someone stated that people who are out of work or working low-paying jobs are uneducated and lazy. I was just pointing out other reasons why people are out of work or working low-paying jobs, and that it's not as simple as the poster stated. Many new college grads cannot find work in their fields, and are working in places like restaurants, or working several part-time jobs. I am sick of people assuming that everyone who is struggling is in that position because they are slacker drop-outs.

LadyC

Thank you! I agree! And some of those are facing paying back the student loans as well. Should they keep furthering their education, driving them deeper in debt, or cut their losses now?

LadyC

And some of the "regulars" on here say that we are "whining." I wouldn't call it that. We are discussing very real problems.

Contango

Re: "You do realize,"

Every generation tends to think that the time in which they live is WORSE than has ever been experienced in the past.

Whiny spoiled rotten Americans who SOMEHOW think that the world owes them something. The impoverished world laughs at and envies us.

Our news media never showed us the throngs worldwide who CHEERED at the events of 9/11/01. In their mind, the U.S. was getting what it deserved.

Through excessive debt and military adventurism, the U.S. will eventually fall to second-class status. Many believe that the "day of reckoning" is not far off.

Informed

What does this have anything to do the false assumption that everyone who can't find a good paying job is uneducated, unmotivated, or unskilled?

Contango

Re: "What does this have anything,"

Who is making the "assumption"?

The point:

Those that can DO what they must. Those that WON'T just b*tch, moan, whine and wanna blame ANYONE but themselves.

To quote Carly Simon: "These are the good old days."

The U.S. has been living in a sweet spot of a Golden Age since the 1950s. Many believe that it only goes down hill socio-economically from here.

FYI: My mother was abandoned by her mother and raised in an orphanage.

With a HS education, she worked every job that she could find, while always trying to better herself.

She worked in a factory and eventually became a supervisor over two departments.

She had many other personal challenges along the way.

In many ways, she had every right to be bitter. But I've NEVER ONCE heard her complain about her past.

She is the bravest & smartest woman I have ever met and besides me, she's been an inspiration to many others.

shucks

"In many ways, she had every right to be bitter."
.....................So,that's how you got your start - the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

" But I've NEVER ONCE heard her complain about her past"
.................that's probably the only thing she didn't complain about - everybody is wrong except themself - just like you.

donutshopguy

Informed,

So why don't they have a high paying job?

Unwilling to move ? Unwilling to take a chance? A theater degree? A high school education? Being from a generational entitlement mind set?

Informed

They don't have jobs because sometimes for every job, there are 200 applicants. That leaves 199 people without work. And no, I'm not talking about theater majors. Even some people with bachelor degrees in nursing are taking almost a year to find a job. Many people with teaching degrees can't find a job.
Some people cannot move due to their spouse's job, or because they are caring for sick and/or elderly parents.
There are many reasons. That's my point. Not all people are uneducated, unmotivated, or unskilled.

donutshopguy

I understand your point. People have to make personal decision about the direction of their lives.

But, due to those personal decisions why is it our responsibility to feed those who have chosen this path? It was their choice to not take the necessary steps to be employed in a living wage job. Now it's our responsibility to feed them?

Contango

Re: "why is it our responsibility to feed those who have chosen this path?"

I often thought that Sam Kinison's take on world hunger was on the right track:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P...

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