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

Informed

How on earth is someone supposed to predict that in the future, four years after they graduate from college with a degree that may be currently marketable, that they might have trouble finding full-time work with benefits? Or how can someone predict that in the future they may have serious medical issues? There are many situations that are beyond a person's control. What about military families--many of them qualify for SNAP? Should everyone just quit entering the military?
You are still failing to comprehend my point. In some cases, many cases, the alternatives only make the future more bleak or uncertain. And I never said anything was anyone else's responsibility. But if we cannot help out our fellow countrymen who are trying to do their best to help themselves, what kind of country are we? I'll tell you what kind--the third world kind.
I request that you make a list of those career fields where you think people either currently don't have trouble finding a good paying, full-time job, and won't have trouble finding that job five or ten years from now.

Contango

Re: "the third world kind."

After decades of of excessive debt from transfer of payments, entitlement spending and military adventurism THAT is EXACTLY where the U.S. is headed.

Every great nation or empire in the history of the world, i.e. Spain, France, Rome, Britain, the USSR, eventually went broke from excessive borrowing and spending. The U.S. is no different.

Nations like people DO GO BROKE.

AJ Oliver

The Register really needs to open up a comments section where people use their own names. There'd be way less uninformed drivel, and Jr. High level discourse.

Contango

Re: "There'd be way less uninformed drivel,"

Off-topic.

Regardless:

So other than spewing sophomoric political partisan rhetoric, you'd actually regurgitate a fact or two?

I don't know who in the h*ll AJ Oliver is and I could care less.

I 'sincerely' regret if my questions to you have been too pointed and difficult for you to response to.

Economics is about the allocation of limited resources. It's always been and will always be that way.

Even socialist "spread the wealth" nonsense eventually succumbs to market forces.

2cents

It's call the "Readers Forum" Did that back in the 80's! The big problem was that as the Register changed editors, more of what you wrote was rewritten before the public saw it and in a lot of cases the comment was lost from their editing. It became embarrassing at times to have your name on something they wrote!

Contango

Re: "your name,"

1. Many papers link through Facebook.

For a number of reasons, I don't have and won't have an account.

2. A couple of these "blog idiots" are NUTS. One that occasionally attacks me referred to his Glock as his "sweet."

It's not so much for me that I'm concerned about, but why risk potential danger for members of my immediate family?

3. I believe in disagreeing without being disagreeable. Healthy debate can be fun and educational. Name calling for me typically starts with the replier and I will often respond in like manner.

Informed

You are so right--there are way too many irrational. unstable people in the world for me to put my real name on a blog like this!

JudgeMeNot

And the usual flock of brain dead obamabots show up to dismiss the lies... shocker...

tk

Don't know who you are calling brain dead, but I think it might be the ones who say "keep government out of our lives, but on the other hand they want government to tell people the kind of food they can buy." Now that's brain dead.

LadyC

Ha!

Contango

Forget $17T in debt. The U.S. according to one university economics professor has a projected unfunded liability of $211T.

"'If you add up all the promises that have been made for spending obligations, including defense expenditures, and you subtract all the taxes that we expect to collect, the difference is $211 trillion. That's the fiscal gap,' he says. 'That's our true indebtedness.'"

http://www.zerohedge.com/contrib...

It's a real (bleepin') mess isn't it?

The country has been pushing the bills for entitlement spending onto future generations and many are up to their eyeballs in debt from student loans ($1T and counting) and many are also stuck in crappy part-time jobs or are unemployed.

So other than the Fed "printing" more money, where's the $211T gonna come from?

KURTje

The food stamp program is needed. Typical of you Contango. You need to read "My Rifle," it quotes a Marine General - alas you will call him nuts. Nice name calling by the way. Have been called liberal,anti-business, etc. You can call me Marine. (I think you hate those that aren't intiminated) Enjoy your free speech that has been given to you; you non-veteran.

shucks

Right, the crybabies talk about their freedoms being taken away , but they're too dumb and spoiled to realize that they have freedom of speech.

If they talked the way they do here , in this comment section, in other countries ... they'd be dead.

LadyC

Unfortunately, the debt has trickled down into many households and businesses already and it seems to be getting worse. Many of us are not poor, but we are broke. Wages aren't covering expenses, prices are rising on everything, and we are required to pay for intangibles such as taxes and insurance, which are also increasing. I am not whining, I am continuously thinking about it, because it is in our faces, right now. Blaming political parties and groups isn't working either. Slipping from middle income to low income isn't a fun ride, and a lot of us are on it. We can't give up, we have to separate needs from wants, and keep pushing forward. This country is full of resources and ideas. Now if we could just put them together and get ourselves out of this mess.

Contango

Re: "Wages aren't covering expenses, prices are rising on everything, and we are required to pay for intangibles such as taxes and insurance, which are also increasing."

Look no further for your answer than the weakening of the US Dollar under the workings of the Federal Reserve.

Using the rate of inflation, a $1.00 in 1983, (as an example) is now worth .43¢.

The buying power of a US Dollar has been reduced by 57% in 30 yrs!

http://www.davemanuel.com/inflat...

Kinda like monetary junk food.

AJ Oliver

Very sorry about your plight, Ms LadyC. Go see Robert Reich's new film which details how we are getting ripped off by the ONE PERCENT. Personally, I have been very fortunate - but I fear for the country when I look around and see what is happening. The working and middle classes are under sustained and deliberate attack.

Contango

Re: "Robert Reich's new film,"

As the fascist Dr. Reich is a member of the Political Ruling Class (nomenklatura), as well as a highly compensated public employee and media consultant plus an overall recipient of the largess of the 1%, his hypocritical propaganda should be as usual most nauseating.

The most recent piece I found interesting was Oliver Stone's:

http://www.sho.com/sho/oliver-st...

Dr. Information

Its a Michael Moore film. Moore's motive was to get rich and he did by playing on emotions.

Contango

Enjoy how Reich's film "Inequality for All" has a globe as a backdrop for the logo.

Since the U.S. is in the richest 5% in the world, perhaps some of the liberals would like to share with the other poverty stricken 95%?

If one earns $40K annually in the U.S., they are in the richest 1% IN THE WORLD.

It's ALL relative.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2215...

bucknut36

@ kURTJe Great Post! "My Rifle" says it all. People like Contango won't be able to comprehend it. He thinks his " free speech" is an entitlement! Thank you for your service.

Contango

Re: "free speech" is an entitlement!"

See the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution.

Freedom of speech is a NATURAL RIGHT. It does not stem from govt.

And 'especially' NOT from the roughly fifty years of the military industrial complex's global adventurism.

IMO, close every foreign military base, reduce the military to about 250K and protect our own shores.

Think of all the additional food stamps the "saved" money could buy??? :)

Dr. Information

You have a good point about reducing the military size. Especially that of which we have out of our nation.

Contango

“I do love my 40cal. Glock. “ (kURTje, June 25, 2011)

“My Glock is my sweet.” (kURT, Dec. 10, 2010)

And then add to the above, the "The Rifleman's Creed"?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rif...

Yea, go ahead, put your "real name" on your posts with this "level of mentality" out there. :)

arnmcrmn

We all are where we are 99% of the time by the choices we make. Not all millionaire's were handed their fortunes. Matter of fact, I'd be willing to bet there are just as many do nothing rich kids that were spoiled and didn't turn out how mommy and daddy thought vs kids that broke the poverty cycle, became educated and made something of themselves.

Im tired of the complaining in this nation. Do you have a flat screen TV? iPhone? Computer? Car?.......All of these were accomplished, and bettered throughout the years because of capitalism. What incentive would someone have to invent something or better something if they don't reap the benefits from it? There wouldn't be anyone putting in the long hours, the failed projects, the failed theories and trials and money, the frustration, tears, long hours and night, neglected family members and friends. There wouldn't be any incentive to do such. Nobody is that dumb. And its not greed but its the drive to better yourself, buy that bigger house, nicer car and take vacations when you want. That is not greed at all that is called the American Dream, the American Drive.

We all have nobody to blame for where we are in lives but ourselves. Its time for this "hold your hand through life attitude" to stop. If you don't like it, only YOU can change it and that is the way it should be.

Washington (both parties) have screwed this nation up big time. Welfare was a temporary thing that has now become a lifestyle for a large chunk of recipients. Unemployment was to help those who were actively looking for another job and now its a way to live for a nice chunk of the pie. Our government keeps handing out things which does one thing. It takes away ownership, and personal responsibility for ones action for a large portion of Americans. Im not talking about granny or gramps who is 80 and has worked his whole life and now needs help. Im not talking about Mr. Smith who is mentally handicap or Mrs. Joe who was in a car accident and now cannot do the job she once use to do......Im talking about the millions of able bodied Americans that CAN WORK but refuse to. They'd rather sit at home playing Grand Theft Auto 5, while smoking on a blunt. As long as the checks come in, they don't care. They just keep having kids and creating more and more who think their lifestyle is normal when it is not.

Until the government starts putting limits on things and making people responsible for their actions, we will have these same arguments 10 years from now.

Its sad that service men and women have to default on their house while serving overseas, yet millions of Americans sit on their butt collecting checks and not working to be a contributor to this great country.

You are either a contributor to this country or a taker, bottom line. Im glad Im a contributor.

Dr. Information

Quite easily one of the best posts I have read in a long time young man. Can I call you young man because I assume you are bit younger than I?

8ballinthesidepocket

Amen and Amen!

KURTje

Look old man; just because you aren't a Christian, or "I ain't a Christian." You & your ilk are what is wrong with American. You act like you are owed. You aren't. Glad you are paying attention.

Dr. Information

I fail to read where anyone thinks they are owed. What I see on these forums on a daily basis is the left hating the right because the right wants more personal responsibility given back to the individual and not in the form of more government; and the right hating the left because they want more government, more handouts and more insight from big brother.

I think there is a fine line in the middle that we need to get back to. Our nation has went way past that line in the form of more government, less personal responsibility. I think what many fail to realize is the right side does not want to throw out all help to those that need it. Personally, I'd rather someone receive food stamps, and aid to help them along as long as they are trying and working. Who cares if its a low end job and they need additional help, thats what the help is there for. America is lazy, kids are lazy and the welfare system is broke. If anyone cannot realize that, then they really need to look at the numbers.

Contango

Re: "Personally, I'd rather someone receive food stamps, and aid to help them along as long as they are trying and working."

IMO, the process has been institutionalized into a bureaucratic industrial complex with too many players who have a financial interest in it's continuation and expansion.

It needs to be returned to the community level on a charitable or not-for-profit basis where improved oversight and validation can help relieve the system of it's massive waste, fraud and abuse.

Regardless, it ain't gonna happen until perhaps one day the SNAP cards come back NSF.

Dr. Information

I can agree with your points. It seems as though anything the government touches turns bad. Keeping it more local would cut back on the fraud and waste.

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