Food Stamp Act of 1964

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Food Stamp Act of 1964

Steven Puro

The Food Stamp Act (P.L. 88-525) was part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society Program. The Great Society Programs substantially expanded social welfare programs within the national government. Designed to "safe-guard the health and well-being of the Nation's population and raise levels of nutrition among low-income households," the Food Stamp Act received strong support from legislatorsincluding Lenore Sullivan (D-MO), Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), Stuart Symington (D-MO), and George Aiken (R-VT)as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Farmers Union, and poverty groups, particularly those groups located in the Appalachian Mountains, a poverty-stricken area of the country.

The goal of the Food Stamp Act of 1964 was to prevent hunger, improve the social conditions of citizens with low-incomes, and provide a foundation for U.S. agriculture. In particular, Congress designed the act "To strengthen the agricultural economy; to help achieve a fuller and more effective use of food abundances; to provide for improved levels of nutrition among low-income households through a cooperative Federal-State program of food assistance to be operated through normal channels of trade." This nutritional program, it was hoped, would reduce the incidents of health problems in poverty-stricken areas, in particular, problems associated with low birth weight, anemia, and osteoporosis.

To accomplish its goals, Congress adopted a new mechanism to distribute agricultural surpluses to poor individualsfood stampsstamps that people could exchange for food at grocery stores. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided these stamps through state welfare offices, and this, in turn, created a key linkage between federal and state governments on agricultural matters. The Food Stamp Act required the federal government pay for the benefits, but the state agencies determined individual eligibility, distributed the stamps, and conducted audits and monitored vendors' food stamp inventories. The federal and state governments, however, shared the administrative costs of the program. The food stamp program is best described as an "in-kind" benefit that ensures recipients use the government support on groceries and nutrition. Not only did the program feed poor individuals, but it also provided an economic boost to grocery stores because the food stamps worked as a cash-equivalent, enabling customers to buy more goods and items not subsidized by the program. The Food Stamp Act, however, was not free of controversy. At the time of its adoption and for many years after, legislators have debated funding, eligibility standards, accessibility, and accountability.


Shortly after the initiation of the program, there were major additions to the existing law. In 1967 Congress amended the act to allow for greater distribution of food and food stamps to both children and retirees over sixty-five. A range of groups supported these amendments, including the National Grange and National Milk Producers Federation, and poverty rights advocates, represented by the Poverty Rights Action Center of the National Welfare Rights Organization.

To some supporters, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and its amendments played an important role in a network of programs that served to promote individuals' health and prevent hunger. Ellen Haas, Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, testified on June 8, 1995, before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture Department Operations, Nutrition and Foreign Agriculture, Food Stamp and Commodity Program that: "[T]he three anchors of the Nation's nutrition security strategy [are] the Child Nutrition Programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Food Stamp Program. Together, these programs form a network of food and nutrition assistance that ensures that every low-income Americanregardless of who they are or where they livehas access to a nutritious diet."

After more than a decade of operation, however, the Food Stamp Act faced major criticisms concerning administrative practices and eligibility standards. Both Republicans and Democrats viewed the process of applying for and receiving benefits as limiting accessibility and delaying benefits; moreover, legislators disputed who was needy and who deserved to receive program benefits.

Prior to 1977, the law required individuals to purchase their food stamps, and this purchase requirement served as a barrier to participation for those without easy access to those government offices, and individuals with limited amounts of available cashespecially subsistence level farmers and other agricultural workers. The Food Stamp Act of 1977 eliminated the purchase requirement and allowed benefit delivery based upon eligibility standards. The 1977 legislation that created eligibility guidelines identified those with the right to obtain government assistance under the program. The early 1980s cutbacks in the food stamp programs were achieved by reducing eligibility and government funds available for use in the program; the mid- to late 1980s saw some restoration of benefits and increased resources made available. Currently, the food stamp program is implemented through a credit card distributed to eligible individuals. There is no longer an actual distribution of food stamps, and some argue that the credit card approach reduces stigma attached to these purchases and limits recipient abuse.

Congress altered the structure of the Food Stamp Program again when it adopted the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWOR)also known as Welfare to Work Program. PRWOR tightened the eligibility guidelines for food stamp assistance; legal immigrants were no longer entitled to receive food stamps, and the law allowed able-bodied adults with no dependent children to receive food stamps, but only for three months in any given three-year period. The Welfare to Work Program was a means to cut social welfare costs in the domestic budget and allow a broader scope of state initiatives in administering welfare programs.

The Farm Bill of 2002 enhanced program access in an effort to rectify a decline in program participation that had occurred over the previous five years. The decline in the use of food stamps caused a decrease in the demand for agricultural products, and this, in turn, decreased farmers' economic stability. The Food Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 reauthorized the food stamp program and revised eligibility for several groups, particularly qualified aliens, immigrants, and children that the 1996 PRWOR excluded. Both pieces of legislation that Congress adopted in 2002 permitted states to increase access to the food stamp program by broadening the eligibility requirements. The Food Stamp Act and its alterations since 1964 have beenand remainan important element in defining societal relationships with low-income individuals, federal-state administrative relationships, and economic support for the nation's agricultural sector.

See also: Aid to Dependent Children Act; Medicaid Act; Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act; Social Security Act of 1935.


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Schwartz, John. America's Hidden Success: A Reassessment of Public Policy from Kennedy to Reagan. New York: Norton, 1988.