What It Means
A food stamp is a coupon that can be redeemed for food at a grocery store. Food stamps are provided by a federal program on a monthly basis to individuals in the United States who do not have the means to buy enough food themselves or their families. The stamps can be used to buy almost any food or to buy seeds or plants to grow food for the household. They cannot be redeemed for alcohol, tobacco products, household supplies such as soap and paper products, medicines, or vitamins. In the past, food stamp benefits were issued as paper vouchers enclosed in a book, but today most are distributed using Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which are similar to ATM cards.
People only qualify for food stamps if their total household income is less than a certain amount set by the federal government. A household is defined as individuals who live together and buy and prepare food together. Single individuals may also qualify. In 2003 the average gross (total) monthly income per food stamp household was $640. The income limit is higher for elderly or disabled persons. People seeking food stamps generally apply for them at their local Department of Social Services.
The Food Stamp Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the federal assistance program that provides food stamps. Its mission is to raise the level of nutrition of low-income households. Food stamps are most commonly provided to support needy households as well as those who are moving off of receiving welfare and into working. The program is funded by the federal government, but it is administered at the state level, by local offices of public-assistance agencies. In 2000 the program provided food stamps to 17.2 million individuals in 7.3 million U.S. households.
When Did It Begin
When the Great Depression of the 1930s halted the growth of the American economy, the Department of Agriculture developed a food assistance program with two goals: to support farmers who needed help distributing their surplus (excess) agricultural goods and to provide food for Americans who were out of work. In 1939 the first Food Stamp Program was started in Rochester, New York. By 1943 it had spread to hundreds of counties across the nation, at its peak feeding millions of people simultaneously. When the U.S. economy recovered in the early 1940s, allaying concerns about hunger, the Food Stamp Program ended.
In the early 1960s President John F. Kennedy (1917–63) led an effort to revive the food assistance program. Inspired to address poverty in the United States because his 1960 campaign had brought him in touch with some of the nation’s poorest citizens, he pushed his new administration to develop a relief program. Administrators first put pilot (trial) programs into place. The success of these supported the passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964, which established a permanent federal food-relief program for farmers and needy Americans. The program allowed eligible people to buy stamps at an amount that was determined by their level of income. It also distributed bonus coupons that could be exchanged for surplus food (food that farmers had overproduced and could not sell; the government helped farmers by purchasing these products). In these ways, the Food Stamp Program served both the needs of the poor and the needs of American farmers who had the serious problem of unmarketable products.
More Detailed Information
For years after the Food Stamp Act was passed, the Food Stamp Program grew steadily. In 1965 the number of recipients was just over half a million; by 1974 it had grown to 15 million. Although the program satisfied millions of food stamp recipients, there were many who challenged its expense to the federal government as well as its efficiency (because of delays in the certification process, it was difficult to provide benefits in a timely way). In 1971 Congress passed new legislation that established work requirements for those receiving benefits and imposed national standards for determining who was eligible to participate. The program was expanded to include recipients in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as drug addicts and alcoholics attending treatment centers. The U.S. government allotted $1.75 billion to the program in 1971.
Similar to all massive federal programs, the Food Stamp Program has required the continual attention of lawmakers and policymakers. One of the complaints about the program throughout the 1970s was about the rule that recipients had to purchase their food stamps. Many critics of the program believed that the fact that recipients had to pay for stamps discouraged many from using the program. When Congress passed the Food Stamp Act of 1977, it removed the purchase requirement. The change was put into place in January 1979, and in one month participation in the program increased by 1.5 million people.
The Food Stamp Program continued to increase in size, and in 1985 it benefited an average of 19 million people per month and cost almost $20 billion for the year. The enormous expense caused the program to come under the scrutiny of legislators, who voted to cut its funding in 1981 and 1982. The effects of these cutbacks included eliminating outreach programs and setting new income requirements to determine whether an individual or household was eligible for benefits.
In 2005 the Department of Agriculture conducted a study about participants in the Food Stamp Program; it revealed that 51 percent of all participants were children, 65 percent of whom lived in single-parent households. In addition, the study indicated that 9 percent of participants were elderly and that the average gross monthly income per food stamp household was $640. The department also stated that 46 percent of participants were white, 31 percent were African-American, 13 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent were Asian, 1 percent were Native American, and 7 percent were of unknown ethnicity.
The hunger problem in the United States increased in the 1980s, and to address it, certain changes were made to the Food Stamp Program. Congress removed the sales tax on food purchases for recipients, gave homeless people eligibility for the program, and provided funds for nutrition education. New legislation also established the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system, which gave food stamp recipients an alternative way to access their benefits. The program continued to improve and expand throughout the 1980s. By 1994 participation had increased to a record 28 million recipients.
Employment levels in the United States directly affect the levels of participation in the Food Stamp Program. When unemployment levels declined in the late 1990s, food stamp participation also fell, because more workers were able to find jobs. In 2001 unemployment began to increase again, and in 2005 nearly 25.8 million people participated in the program.
Some critics of the Food Stamp Program make the argument that individuals who participate in the program for long periods of time can grow dependent on it. Another criticism is that the food provided through the program is not nutritious and results in health problems for participants.
Others have pointed out that the program does not actually achieve its specific goal of increasing the quantity of nutritional food that people buy. Rather, its real effect is to increase recipients’ incomes: most buy the same food they normally would and use the money they would have spent on food to pay for their housing expenses. Therefore, these critics argue, the program is ineffective, because it is often no different from giving people money to supplement their income.