Food stamps constitute one part of the welfare system within the United States. The purpose of the present sample essay is to discuss the concept and functioning of food stamps. The essay will have four main parts.
- The first part will describe the history and concept of food stamps.
- The second part will discuss how food stamps actually work in practice.
- The third part will consider the prevalence and nature of food stamp use at the present time.
- Finally, the fourth part will reflect on debates and controversies surrounding the food stamp concept.
History of food stamps
The modern food stamp program within the United States was implemented in 1964, with the passage of the Federal Food Stamp Act of 1964. As the Legal Information Institute has written:
“It provides food stamps for needy individuals that can be exchanged like money at authorized stores. The federal government pays for the amount of the benefit received, while states pay the costs of determining eligibility and distributing stamps. In addition, state public assistance agencies run the program” (paragraph 1).
The food stamp program is often criticized for not providing families with enough money to actually eat in a healthy way over the course of months. However, it must be borne in mind that the food stamp program is mainly meant to provide families with supplemental income. Most people who receive food stamps have an alternative form of at least some income, even though that income is not enough to sustainably provide for food.
In this context, the food stamp program can provide eligible persons and/or families with the little extra money they may need in order to round out their diets in a healthy way.
In technical terms, the food stamp program is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As the USDA Food and Nutrition Service has noted, people who are eligible for this welfare service include those who are working for low wages and/or part-time, the unemployed, those receiving other forms of welfare, the elderly and/or disabled who are low-income, and the homeless (paragraph 2).
There are fairly strict regulations on what food stamps can and cannot be used to purchase. For example, it cannot be used to purchase nonfood items, alcoholic drinks, vitamins or medicines, food that will be eaten within the store itself, and hot foods (paragraph 15). On the other hand, it can be used to purchase standard grocery products that can be taken home and used to prepare meals.
Over time, there has been at least some talk in some states about adding further restrictions, such as mandating that food stamps cannot be used to purchase soft drinks. Such regulations would be a way of trying to improve public health through the administration of the food stamp program itself.
Function of food stamps
In terms of practical functioning, food stamps are essentially an alternative form of currency that can be used for the sole purpose of purchasing groceries in order to supplement one’s diet. As Slawny has written:
“The minimum meal plan for first-year DePaul students living in residence halls costs $1,175 per quarter. That’s roughly $98 per week, or $13 per day. This is over three times as much as low-income Americans using solely food stamps to pay for food: they’re given only $29 per week” (paragraph 1).
If this were the exclusive form of income for a given person or family, then that person or family would essentially be able to spend only $1.38 per meal, assuming three meals a day. If one were to rely exclusively on such a budget, one will almost surely end up malnourished. This is why emphasis is often placed on the fact that food stamps are supposed to serve a primarily supplemental function.
There is little further that really need to be said about how food stamps actually function, from the perspective of a given person who is making use of them. There are SNAP offices located all across the nation; and if one’s application for food stamps is approved, one can visit a program office in order to receive food stamps on a regular basis. Once one has received the food stamps, they are essentially exactly the same thing as money, when taken to the stores where they are accepted.
Most standard grocery stores, including Wal-Mart, Target, and Jewel-Osco, and Safeway accept food stamps as a legitimate form of currency. Again, food stamps are used in exactly the same way that money is used. The stamps, recorded on a plastic card, are traded for the food, just as money is ordinarily traded for the food. In practice, the food stamp is an extremely simple concept.
Food stamps in the present time
A few years ago, there was a significant rise in the number of Americans who are making use of food stamps. As DeParle and Gebeloff reported back in 2009:
“It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread, and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs” (paragraph 2).
This was one of the consequences the deep economic recession that hit the world in 2008. As Plumer has indicated, the vast majority of common Americans, including those who could traditionally be identified with the middle class, were hit by this event in a very serious way; and they are only beginning to recover from it in the present day.
A large number of people thus fell toward the poverty line, with the result that they become eligible for food stamps. This was the first time in recent American history that this kind of demographic shift occurred with respect to the SNAP program.
The nature of the situation is expressed well by the national map provided by Slawny, depicting rates of SNAP participation in the United States. According to this map, in about half of all the states of the nation, the percentage of people who participate in the SNAP program is at least 13.1; and in 43 states plus the District of Columbia, the rate is at least 10.1 percent.
Within the present-day United States, the SNAP program provides assistance to a surprisingly large proportion of the national population. One consequence of this has been that the social stigma historically associated with food stamps has tended to fade over time (DeParle and Gebeloff).
In the past, people who used food stamps were thought of as a small minority of the poorest of the poor: people so poor that they were not even able to feed themselves without governmental assistance. They were seen as a kind of class of formalized beggars.
This is no longer the case, since if fully one-eighth of the nation receives food stamps, this points to a far more pervasive structural issue that cannot be reduced to the level of individual responsibility.
In addition, another trend regarding food stamps that has emerged in the present day is what is called the “Food Stamp Challenge,” where affluent people attempt to actually live on the amount of money that persons in need receive from the SNAP program (Slawny). This has been criticized by some commentators as it shows a kind of disrespect toward the situation of persons actually in need, turning deep impoverishment into a kind of game out of which the relatively affluent can opt out at will.
On the other hand, it has also been noted that the Food Stamp Challenge may be beneficial to persons in need, as it: one, calls attention to the issue of food stamp budgets and thus indirectly prevents those budgets from being cut even further; and two, provides a kind of guideline of how a person in need can actually make the food stamp budget work, as the “challenger” takes the budget seriously and strives to develop a truly workable meal plan.
Debates and controversy
In general, Republicans and other conservatives have tended to oppose the SNAP program, on the grounds that it gets in the way of individual initiative and personal responsibility. Rathe, however, has pointed out that there is something of a contradiction here, as the people who first advocated for the food stamp program within the United States were actually the kind of businessmen who are the heroes of today’s conservatives:
“Conservatives appreciated people ‘going through the regular channels of trade’ and not relying on ‘government machinery’ to bring food to people” (paragraph 6).
This is a reference to a pilot program conducted under the Roosevelt administration, which eventually evolved into the modern food stamp program initiated in the 1960s. The idea here is that food stamps actually constitute a relatively streamlined way of providing assistance to Americans living in poverty, or a lower economical class: people still go to grocery stores as usual, as opposed to directly receiving food from the government in some way. To attack the food stamp program, would entail a broader attack of welfare in general.
It is presumably such a broad antipathy toward welfare in general that has contributed to periodic calls to cut funding for the food stamp program. The idea here would seem to be that if people know they can rely on governmental funds for food, this would constitute a kind of disincentive for those people against getting on their own feet, as the basic need to find food could potentially motivate people to take initiative and find opportunities to make money.
Of course, this is a relatively extreme position; it may also contain a number of fallacies, as economic opportunities objectively just do not exist. Nevertheless, the moral logic of a categorical rejection of welfare, as such, is not foreign to the rugged individualism that has informed the ethos of the United States since its inception. This ethos has always existed in tension with the countervailing demands of socialistic altruism.
In addition, Overturf has pointed out that the food stamp program, as it is somewhat underfunded, may constitute a kind of
“acceptance and economic encouragement to make unhealthy choices. Since food stamps only average out to be about $1.35 per day and our country offers no incentives for healthy eating, food stamp users often purchase high calorie, long-lasting items, i.e. junk food” (paragraph 6).
This would contribute to the nation’s growing public health crisis. Again, the focus on the specific number of $1.35 per day may be somewhat misleading, as the large majority of people who receive food stamps do in fact have some other source of income; the food stamps are meant to fulfill a supplemental function, and not to literally cover the entire diet of a given person and/or family.
However, the broader point could still be made that poverty in general, including the low contribution made by food stamps, catalyzes unhealthy dietary habits, as less healthy foods tend to be cheaper, and impoverished persons do not have the “luxury” of spending more money on healthier products instead of fast food. Further analysis would thus perhaps be desirable regarding the potential connections between the SNAP program and public health issues.
In summary, the present essay has discussed the concept and functioning of the food stamp program. A main point that has been made here is that the functioning of the program is actually very simple, with food stamp cards just being used in exactly the same way as money by the beneficiaries of the SNAP program. Another point that has been made, though, is that the contribution made by food stamps is quite minimal, and that it is meant to supplement a given person’s or family’s income and not to cover the entire food bill. Further evaluation is needed regarding whether this is realistic, or whether the SNAP program budget ought to be adjusted in order to improve both the quantity and quality of food available to impoverished persons.
DeParle, Jason, and Robert Gebeloff. “Food Stamp Use Soars, and Stigma Fades.” New York Times. 28 Nov. 2015. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. .
Legal Information Institute. “Food Stamps.” Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. .
Overturf, Madeleine. “Here’s the True Story of of What Food Stamps Do for America.” Policy Mic. 15 Jul. 2013. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. .
Plumer, Brad. “This is How Everyone’s Been Doing Since the Financial Crisis.” Washington Post. 13 Sep. 2015. .
Rathe, Caitlin. “The Right’s Food Stamp Embarrassment: A History Lesson for the Haters.” Salon. 1 Seo. 2014. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. .
Slawny, Heater. “Food Stamps Aren’t a Game to Be Played.” DePaulia. 26 Apr. 2015. Web. 26 Jul. 2015. .
USDA Food and Nutrition Service. “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Facts about SNAP.” 6 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Jul. 2015.