By James Weill, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
A lot has happened in the 50 years since LBJ signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 into law. We’ve elected eight presidents, watched our population grow and shift, gained knowledge about health and nutrition, enjoyed economic booms and survived recessions. Through it all, food stamps have been there, steadfastly providing better nutrition to hungry Americans.
Though the Food Stamp Act has been amended often since 1964, we celebrate it for taking a successful pilot program and giving it ongoing legislative authority to provide food-purchasing assistance to our nation’s most vulnerable people. Today’s incarnation of food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is older, wiser and more experienced than it was half a century ago. Like America, the program still has room for improvement, but it has adapted well to meet the ever-changing needs of our society.
From the beginning, SNAP — like other core programs that comprise America’s social safety net such as Head Start, WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), school meals, Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security — has served a fundamental need for our nation’s poor and vulnerable.
In 2012 alone, SNAP lifted more than four million Americans out of poverty, including 2.1 million children. The program is also proven to reduce food insecurity, which we now know can be devastating through all phases of a person’s life. During pregnancy, food insecurity increases a baby’s risk of low birth weight. It increases young children’s risk of poor health, hospitalizations and developmental delays; and older children are more likely to have behavioral problems and low academic achievement. Food-insecure seniors are more apt to be in poor health and have poor nutrition status.
Clearly, SNAP is meeting a modern need, just as it has for five decades. Over the years, the program has retained and increased its value, in part because of its ability to adapt to our enhanced understanding of how to provide nutrition assistance in the most efficient and economically advantageous way.
For example, coupons were replaced with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, which led to less stigma, more program integrity and higher efficiency. The upshot of EBT and other program changes are record low error rates — down to levels that are the envy of other public and private programs.
SNAP has also proven itself nimble when it comes to a changing economy. Because the median wage for American workers has declined so substantially since the 1970s, many more working families need wages supplemented in order to afford enough food. In response, program shifts now allow low-income working families to participate more readily. SNAP also was hugely responsive to the recent recession.
While raising the minimum wage, sharing economic growth with all Americans, and reversing wage stagnation are the real solutions to America’s high poverty and food insecurity rate, in the meantime, a strong SNAP program that reaches low-wage working families is crucial to encourage work and reduce hunger.
Even as SNAP policies and procedures change with the times, the program’s core mission remains the same. When the Food Stamp Act was passed in 1964, it aimed to provide better nutrition to low-income households while benefiting our agricultural economy. Fifty years later, research shows SNAP is still doing just that.
For example, SNAP benefits boost the economy by creating markets, and spurring economic growth and jobs in urban and rural communities at grocers, superstores, farmers’ markets, military commissaries, manufacturers and farms. And because SNAP benefits are so urgently needed, they are spent quickly — 97 percent of benefits are redeemed within the month of issuance — and therefore have great positive economic effects. Moody’s Analytics and USDA estimate that the economic growth impact of SNAP ranges from $1.73 to $1.79 per $1 of SNAP benefits.
One component of SNAP that needs to change and hasn’t is the amount of the monthly benefit allotment. While we know the program is capable of reducing food insecurity, improving the health and well-being of recipients, and ultimately saving taxpayer dollars on avoided healthcare costs, it could work much better. Current benefits are based on assumptions developed in the 1930s for emergency diets. That plan is now woefully outmoded on every front from nutrition to practicality. Multiple studies, including the USDA’s own analysis of a recent (temporary) boost in benefits, show the value of a healthier allotment.
Over the course of any 50-year period, change is inevitable. Since August 1964, SNAP’s strength has been recognizing and responding to those changes. Today, the program’s mission is as necessary as it was 50 years ago: providing relevant, vital help to boost nutrition, economic security and health among seniors, children, people with disabilities, and unemployed or low-income working families. This is an anniversary worth celebrating.
James Weill is president of the Food Research and Action Center, a leading advocacy organization working to end hunger in America through stronger public policies. Readers may send him email at [email protected]
Photo: USDAgov via Flickr
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