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50 Years Later, SNAP Proves Its Continuing Vitality

McClatchy Tribune News Service Memo Pad Politics

50 Years Later, SNAP Proves Its Continuing Vitality


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 info@frac.org.

Photo: USDAgov via Flickr

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  1. elw August 27, 2014

    As a Public Health Professional with more than three decades of experience, I can tell you personally that SNAP makes a big difference in the lives and health of its recipients. In my experience the majority of families receiving food stamps are good people who are working low paying jobs who would be going hungry without the few extra dollars they get from the program. It is an excellent Social Safety Net program, that we should be proud of and continue to support.

    1. Allan Richardson August 28, 2014

      Including many active military families. Compensation for lower ranks is set using assumptions more relevant to the past than the present: for example, that lower ranking enlisted personnel are young “boys” just starting out, with no family and no home mortgage, for whom the military provides a place to sleep (on base), food (on base), and clothing, and most of their pay can either be saved until they get out and THEN marry and start families, or used for amusement during leaves and liberty. Now the military includes quite a few women, many of them either part of a two-military coupe, with or without children, or single mothers who can get better pay (and education benefits) in the military than in the local fast food or retail store.

      So don’t think that these are all “despicably unambitious” people; someday one of them may kill a terrorist to keep you safe!

      1. elw August 28, 2014

        Yes, no one should forget the roll of SNAP for the families of military left at home while their loved one is fighting for the Country.

  2. Dominick Vila August 28, 2014

    Why are Republicans determined to kill social programs like SNAP? We don’t have to go any further than considering the meaning of Mitt Romney’s comment about 47% of Americans to know the answer to that rhetorical question. For the Republican upper crust, poverty is evil and a representation of failure and laziness. For the Republican rank and file poverty is evil but it confirms the reality of their failures and limitations. For the far right, poverty is evil but it is limited to what former President Reagan so eloquently characterized as a lazy woman who drove a Cadillac to the welfare office…and whose ethnicity we all intuitively know.
    The very idea of helping those who need help by ensuring they have the most basic necessities in life is, in their twisted brains, anti-Christian. Making sure needy children don’t starve and have a pair of decent shoes or, Heavens forbid, making sure they enjoy the same opportunities that are available to everyone else (Affirmative Action) is the epitome of all evils. Not surprisingly, for the most extreme among them, the “final solution” involves David Duke’s famous dictum: send all African Americans back to Africa, all Hispanics and Latinos to Mexico, and all Jews to Israel. This is the world that some Republicans – not all – have in mind when they talk about taking America back.

    1. Irishgrammy August 28, 2014

      The bottom line is with the GOPTP they really don’t care if the SNAP program is torn apart, because in their minds, “those” people don’t vote for the Republican Party anyway, and never will, as they rationalize in that “conservative” completely selfish mind set, so “WHO” among them gives a twit………Starving children, they don’t vote, starving old folks, well yeah they vote, but the GOPTP will just throw around those “social issues” that have always seemed to get the old folks out as part of the GOPTP’s base as they talk wistfully about the good ol’ days (that really were not all that good), and they can fool the old folks one more time, MAYBE…… and everyone else, well, do you think the GOPTP gives a damn about them, the unemployed, the minimum wage earner, the disabled, ……….etc., etc…….No one, NO ONE living in the richest country in history, that can and does grow and produce food for the world, along with all of us chubby Americans, should go hungry……. EVER!!!

    2. jointerjohn August 28, 2014

      Actually, although I know what you meant, the Republican upper crust doesn’t consider poverty evil, they see it as an opportunity for indentured cheap labor. That is why they despise us when we provide a little relief to the suffering of the poor. We are raising the wages they must pay, when the workers are not starving to death. What the Republican upper crust does is view persons in poverty as inferior and deserving of scorn.
      In the latter twentieth century protestant conservative Christianity took a hard turn, away from viewing opulent wealth as un-Christian selfishness, to viewing it as God’s way of rewarding the righteous. Mega-rich televangelists convinced many that God wants them to enjoy the fruits of their labors, and with that implied that poverty is laziness coupled with a sinful life. This “Economic Darwinism” is their way of assigning themselves superiority and assuaging any guilt that might come from treating the less fortunate like dirt.

  3. charles king August 28, 2014

    I am A Korean War Veteran and I am graful for SNAP cause it takes away the cost that I would have to make out of My Social Security for food. MONIES do not make a difference in my life-time and I expect to reach (100yrs) in 2030. SNAP works, Social Security works, ObamaCare works, your Democracy works you just have to work at keeping it working, Medicare works, J A Z Z works, do Not let these phooney Plutocracts(Commissioners) and State Representives, Republicans and Democracts WHO? are corroping the system and destroying your Democracy. Democracy is about All of us Not just the ones with the MONIES and Not paying their fair share of their TAXES. Privatizing America is all I hear from the Republicans side and I wonder Who? are these people and Why? do they want to destroy Democracy. Think! People, Think, Critical Think, People Who? and What? are these organizations that want? to STOP SNAP, What? and Why? Would? these type of people Want? to destroy A program like SNAP. THINK PEOPLE. Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. KING


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