Food Stamps

views updated May 29 2018


FOOD STAMPS. The Food Stamp Program (FSP) is intended to help low-income individuals and families meet their basic nutritional needs. Although the first food stamps were issued to needy families in 1939, the FSP was not authorized as an official food-assistance program until 1964. In 1974, all states were required to offer food stamps, and in 1977 participation increased when eligible persons no longer had to buy food stamps with cash. Participation in the FSP continued to increase through the mid-1990s, until the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA, also known as "welfare reform") of 1996 reduced the number of people who were eligible.

In the early twenty-first century, the FSP remained the largest of the fifteen federal food-assistance programs, providing aid to an estimated 17.3 million individuals in 2001. An analysis of participants in 2000 showed that 51 percent were children (eighteen years or younger), 39 percent were nonelderly adults, and 10 percent were elderly adults. About 70 percent of participating adults were women. The majority (89 percent) of FSP households included a child, or elderly or disabled person. Of the households with children, 68 percent were headed by a single adult. Average gross monthly income per household was $620, with 89 percent of households having gross monthly incomes below 100 percent, and 58 percent having gross monthly incomes below 75 percent, of the federal poverty guideline. In 2000, 40 percent of participants were white, 36 percent were non-Hispanic African Americans, 18 percent were Hispanic, and 6 percent were of another race or ethnicity.

The total cost of the FSP in 2001 was approximately $17.8 billion, of which $15.5 billion was distributed in the form of food stamps. These numbers are noticeably lower than in 1994, when expenditures peaked at $24.5 billion and the number of participants also peaked, at 27.5 million (see Table 1). Trends in FSP participation and expenditures parallel trends in poverty and reduced unemployment. They also reflect changes in FSP policy and lack of information about such changesthe most likely reason why the participation rate among persons who remained eligible decreased from 74 percent in 1994 to 57 percent in 1999.

The FSP is administered at the federal level by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but eligibility and distribution of benefits are administered by state and local agencies. In 2002, a household qualified for Food Stamps if its gross income was less than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline (for example, $1,585 per month for a three-person household as of 1 October 2001), if net income after certain deductions (such as for child care) was less than 100 percent of the poverty guideline (for example, $1,220 per month for a three-person household as of the same date), and if countable assets (such as a bank account, but not a home or lot) were less than $2,000 (or less than $3,000 if the household had an elderly member). After the PRWORA took effect in 1997, legal permanent-resident aliens not employed in the United States for the past ten years could no longer receive FSP assistance, and most adults who were ablebodied, nonworking, and childless could receive only three months of aid in any thirty-six months. In addition, the maximum FSP benefit amounted to 100 percent of the

Food Stamp Program Participation and Costs
Fiscal Year Average Participation Thousands Average Benefit Per Person Dollars Total Benefits All Other Costs Millions of Dollars Total Costs
1969 2,87 86.63 228.8 21.7 250.5
1970 4,340 10.55 549.7 27.2 576.9
1975 17,064 21.40 4,385.5 233.2 4,618.7
1980 21,082 34.47 8,720.9 485.6 9,206.5
1985 19,899 44.99 10,743.6 959.6 11,703.2
1990 20,067 58.92 14,186.7 1,304.4 15,491.1
1995 26,619 71.26 22,764.1 1,855.5 24,619.6
2000 17,158 72.78 14,984.8 2,073.3 17,058.1
2001 (P) 17,316 74.77 15,536.1 2,253.9 17,790.0
Data as of 25 April 2002. Fiscal Year (FY) 2001 data are preliminary; all data are subject to revision. "Average Benefit per Person" represents average monthly benefit. "All Other Costs" includes the Federal share of state administrative expenses and employment and training programs. It also includes other Federal costs (such as printing and processing of stamps, antifraud funding, and program valuation). Puerto Rico initiated Food Stamp operations during FY 1975 and participated through June of FY 1982. A separate Nutrition Assistance Grant was begun in July 1982.

Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) allowance (reduced from the 103 percent issued in 1988). The TFP identifies types and quantities of foods for twelve age-gender groups that would meet the respective 1989 Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs), the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid serving recommendations, according to data from the 19891991 Continuing Survey of Food Intake by Individuals (CSFII) and according to national average food prices. Eligibility for the FSP has changed constantly, however, as demonstrated by the decision in 1998 to restore Food Stamp benefits to children, elderly, and disabled individuals who were legal permanent residents in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a toll-free telephone number to answer questions about current policies of the FSP.

In 2001, FSP participants received an average of $75 per person monthly in the form of paper coupons in denominations of $1, $5, and $10, or as electronic benefit transfers (EBTs). The computer-based EBT system employs a plastic card that functions like a bank debit card, allowing items to be purchased without the exchange of cash or coupons. The implementation of the EBT system was intended to make Food Stamp fraud (such as the exchange of cash for coupons at a lower value) more difficult. As of October 2001, thirty-seven states and Washington, D.C. issued all Food Stamp benefits in the form of EBTs. The PRWORA of 1996 mandates that all states use EBTs by October 2002.

Food Stamp coupons or EBTs can be used to buy foods such as breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and poultry, and dairy products, and to buy seeds and plants that produce food, from an estimated 155,000 authorized stores in the United States. But coupons or EBTs cannot be used to buy beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or other forms of tobacco; nonfood items like pet foods, household supplies, or toiletries; foods that can be eaten in the store; or hot foods. Food Stamps also cannot be used to buy dietary supplements, including vitamins and minerals, a controversial policy that has undergone much scrutiny.

Evaluation of the impact of the FSP on the diets of participants is mixed. Using data from the 19961997 National Food Stamp Program Survey (NFSPS), average nutrient intakes of FSP participants exceeded the RDA, but a substantial number of households had folic acid and iron intakes below the respective RDAs. Data from the 1994 to 1996 CSFII and the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) show that FSP participants had higher intakes of most nutrients than other adults, but that median intakes of vitamin E, calcium, and zinc still fell below the respective RDAs. Within population subgroups, Food Stamps have been associated with improved nutrient intakes in children but not among the elderly. Interestingly, Food Stamp participants are more likely to be food-insecure, meaning their household does not have enough food to eat at all times. However, this counterintuitive finding is credible because people who are food-insecure are more likely than others to apply for and receive Food Stamps. The dietary quality and food security of Food Stamp participants after the implementation of the PRWORA of 1996 and subsequent changes in FSP policy are of keen interest.

See also Class, Social ; Government Agencies, U.S. ;Poverty ; School Meals ; Soup Kitchens ; WIC (Women, Infants, and Childrens) Program .


Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. The Thrifty Food Plan: Executive Summary. CNPP-7A. Available at

Cohen, B., J. Ohls, M. Andrews, M. Ponza, L. Moreno, A. Zambrowski, and R. Cohen. Food Stamp Participants' Food Security and Nutrient Availability. Princeton, N.J.: Mathematica Policy Research, July 1999.

Gundersen, C., and V. Oliveira. "The Food Stamp Program and Food Insufficiency." American Journal of Agricultural Economics 83 (2001): 875887.

Guthrie, J., and C. Olander. "The Adequacy of Vitamin and Mineral Intakes among Low-income Adults." In The Use of Food Stamps to Purchase Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1999.

Lee, J. S., and E. A. Frongillo. "Understanding Needs Is Important for Assessing the Impact of Food Assistance Program Participation on Nutritional and Health Status in U.S. Elderly Persons." Journal of Nutrition 131 (2000): 765773.

Oliveira, V., and J. W. Levedahl. "All Food Stamp Benefits to Be Issued Electronically." Food Review 21 (1998): 3539.

Perez-Escamilla, R., A. M. Ferris, L. Drake, L. Haldeman, J. Peranick, M. Campbell, Y. K. Peng, G. Burke, and B. Bernstein. "Food Stamps Are Associated with Food Security and Dietary Intake of Inner-city Preschoolers from Hartford, Connecticut." Journal of Nutrition 130 (2000): 27112717.

Rose, D., J. P. Habicht, and B. Devaney. "Household Participation in the Food Stamp and WIC Programs Increases the Nutrient Intakes of Preschool Children." Journal of Nutrition 128 (1998): 548555.

United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Food and Nutrition Assistance Programs: Food Stamp Program. Graphs and Source Data: Food Stamp Participants, Persons in Poverty and Unemployed Persons, 19801999. Available at

United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Food Assistance Landscape. Available at

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. Food Stamp Program. Available at

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. The Use of Food Stamps to Purchase Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Washington, D.C.; U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1999.

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Analysis, Nutrition, and Evaluation. Characteristics of Food Stamp Households: Fiscal Year 2000. Alexandria, Va.: Karen Cunnyngham, Mathematica Policy Research, October 2001.

United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Analysis, Nutrition, and Evaluation.

Trends in Food Stamp Program Participation Rates: 1994 to 1999. Washington, D.C.: Randy Rosso, Mathematica Policy Research, October 2001.

Weimer, J. "Factors Affecting Nutrient Intake of the Elderly." U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Agricultural Economic Report No. 769. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, October 1998.

L. Beth Dixon

Food Stamp Program

views updated May 29 2018


FOOD STAMP PROGRAM. The food stamp program originated in federal efforts to combat overproduction during the Great Depression by raising the consumption of agricultural products. The Department of Agriculture conceived the program as a means to assist the nation's farmers while also feeding the hungry and out-of-work. The first food stamp program began in May 1939 in Rochester, New York, and eventually spread to 1,500 counties before ending in 1943 as the wartime economic boom dampened concern about hunger and overproduction.

Despite the efforts of a number of proponents, the federal government did not reestablish the food stamp program for nearly twenty years. President John F. Kennedy, after witnessing Appalachian poverty during the 1960 campaign, instructed the Department of Agriculture to create food stamp pilot programs. The first of these began in McDowell County, West Virginia, on 29 May 1961. Its success brought program expansion, and the Food Stamp Act, enacted 31 August 1964, established a permanent program.

Like its predecessor, the second food stamp program served farmers as its primary clientele while assisting the needy through increased purchasing power and food consumption. Participants purchased stamps at prices and at an allotment level determined by their income and received bonus coupons to exchange for food deemed surplus by the government. The program's emphasis on agricultural production, consumption, and consumer choice combined, as President Lyndon B. Johnson observed, America's "humanitarian instincts" with "the free enterprise system."

In the decade following the 1964 legislation, the food stamp program expanded rapidly and transformed from a program of relief and surplus disposal into a welfare program. The Department of Agriculture adapted food stamps to serve the urban poor, liberalized benefits and eligibility to meet nutritional needs, decreased the purchase price of coupons, and increased coupon allotments. The Food Stamp Reform Bill of 1970 codified these reforms and established national standards for nutrition and eligibility. Reforms in 1973 secured food stamps as an entitlement program, required of states and counties by the federal government and guaranteed to all who were eligible. In 1975, the program reached 17.1 million people and received a budget of $4.6 billion. This expansion resulted from the work of hunger advocacy groups, the Senate's Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs chaired by George McGovern, and the Nixon administration. It reflected a broad political and social consensus as to the program's necessity, effectiveness, and affordability.

Economic decline in the mid-1970s, however, triggered mounting criticism of the food stamp program. Charges of fraud and abuse, which had worried observers since the creation of the first program, emerged again. New concerns developed from the program's expansion and success. Opponents assailed food stamp benefits and eligibility requirements as too generous and as disincentives for the poor to find work. Conservatives charged that the program had expanded beyond taxpayers' ability to pay for it and represented an outsized federal government. Together, these political attacks brought increased congressional scrutiny and the first turn of public opinion against the program. The Food Stamp Act of 1977 reflected this new mood in stricter eligibility standards and stricter administrative guidelines.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration and congressional opponents of the food stamp program stepped up efforts to trim the program and dramatically reduced program expenditure. In the course of the decade, the program faced new criticism that blamed food stamps and other welfare programs for enticing illegal and nonworking legal immigrants to the United States. Yet while subjected to budget cuts and redesigned benefits, the program's basic structure and purpose remained unchanged through the 1980s and participation continued to rise. The program reached its peak level of enrollment of 28 million individuals in March 1994.

The mounting hostility of Congress and the public toward food stamps coalesced in the bipartisan Welfare Reform Act of 1996. The legislation cut stamp allotments and eligibility and changed the formula for calculating benefits. While food stamps continued as an entitlement program, the law reduced the federal government's role in funding and administration. It placed a three-month cap on the participation of able-bodied, childless adults who remained unemployed, and it denied benefits to illegal immigrants and to many legal immigrants. The 1996 legislation successfully decreased both the program's cost and its participation levels, but seemed to have shifted much of the difference to private food charities.

The food stamp program remained a significant part of America's struggle against poverty and hunger. In fiscal year 2000, the program served 17.2 million individuals in 7.3 million households and received a budget of $21.1 billion. The Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service oversaw the program, and state public assistance agencies administered it through their local offices. The program continued to evolve. Electronic benefits systems were replacing the use of stamps, while electoral politics and concerns about access once again seemed to favor program expansion—the restoration of some legal immigrants' benefits, in particular.


Berry, Jeffrey M. Feeding Hungry People: Rulemaking in the Food Stamp Program. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984. Focuses on federal administration of food stamps yet provides a detailed history of the program's origins and early years.

MacDonald, Maurice. "Food Stamps: An Analytical History." Social Service Review 51 (Dec. 1977): 642–658.

Patterson, James T. America's Struggle against Poverty, 1900– 1994. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Department of Agriculture. Food Stamp Program Web site. Provides current information and statistics on the program.


See alsoWelfare System .

Food Stamps

views updated May 23 2018


Food stamps are vouchers issued to low-income households that are redeemable only for food at retail stores. The Food Stamp Program in the United States is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service unit of the Department of Agriculture and financed through the Social Security Administration. The program is operated by state and local welfare offices and is available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The objective of the Food Stamp Program is to end hunger and improve nutrition and health by assisting low-income households in obtaining a nutritionally adequate diet. Participants in the program use food stamps to supplement what they would normally spend on food. Both low-income families with dependent children and households without children can be eligible for food stamps. The quantity of Food Stamps an eligible household is entitled to depends on the amount of income the household has available and the number of people in the household.

See also: Social Security Act, Welfare Policy