In 1961, the Congress enacted a pilot program designed to help both poor people and farmers – the Food Stamp Program. The program was actually a revival of an idea that had been tried during the Great Depression. In both the 30s and the early 60s, farmers were producing more food than the nation could consume or export, and there was a large group of people who were going to bed hungry. On the one hand, food stamps were and are a sincere attempt to alleviate hunger, but on the other hand, the program is designed to help farmers as well.
During the Depression, people on “relief” – as welfare programs were called at the time – could literally buy stamps that could be used to buy food. A family on relief could buy orange stamps on a one-to-one basis and the government would give the family blue stamps on a one-to-two basis – that is, $10 from the family would buy $10 worth of orange stamps and $5 worth of blue stamps. Orange stamps could be used to buy any food; blue stamps could be used to buy surplus food.
For four years during the Depression, the first Food Stamp Program fed 20 million people at one time or another in nearly half of the total counties in the nation. The cost was $262 million – the equivalent of over $3 billion in 2007 dollars.
The first program was eliminated in 1943 as war spending brought the country out of the Depression. For the next 18 years, most of the country was better off. But there were still heart wrenching pockets of poverty.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President and West Virginia was a key battleground primary. Kennedy campaigned tirelessly and talked with hundreds of poor coal miners and workers. As Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s speech writer, says in his book Kennedy –
“He was appalled by the pitiful conditions he saw, by the children of poverty, by the families living on surplus lard and corn meal, by the waste of human resources… He called for better housing and better schools and better food distribution… He held up a skimpy surplus food package and cited real-life cases of distress.”
Kennedy won that primary, his party’s nomination and the Presidency all the slimmest of margins. He never forgot his experience in West Virginia.
Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961, and he promised an optimistic future despite the fact that there was a troubling recession going on and surplus farm products piling up in government storage bins. Not content to wait for Congress, his first Executive Order in February (among many other things) re-instituted a “pilot” food stamp program based on the Depression-era model.
After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson requested Congress to make the program permanent. They did in 1964. Congress estimated that the program might serve only four million people, but it grew quickly.
- By April 1965, half-a-million poor people were buying food stamps.
- By March 1966, that number reached 1 million.
- By October 1967, it reached 2 million.
- By February 1969, it reached 3 million.
- By February 1970, it reached 4 million.
- By March 1970 – only one month later – it reached 5 million.
- By February 1971, it reached 10 million.
- By October 1974, it reached 15 million.
But despite the phenomenal growth, the need proved to be greater. In 1968, CBS news aired a documentary titled “Hunger in America” that found severe cases of malnutrition in kids. That program caught the attention of Democratic Sen. George McGovern and Republican Sen. Bob Dole. They got the Senate to form a special committee to study the system. Gradually they pushed through reforms.
In 1974, Food Stamps became a nationwide program, and by July of that year 14 million people a month were participating.
Finally, in 1977, a major revision was pushed through with the support of President Jimmie Carter. The 1977 program finally allowed the poorest of the poor to be given food stamps instead of having to pay for them. The program greatly expanded the number of people who were eligible while still cracking down on fraud.
Over the years, the program has been re-authorized, expanded and contracted depending on the political powers and the state of the economy. Supporters of the Food Stamp Program include a mixture of farm lobbying groups, labor unions and advocates for the poor.
Today, although the program is still known as Food Stamps, there are no stamps anymore. Since 2002 participants nationwide are issued an Electronic Benefit Transfer card that works like a bank card in grocery stores.
In 2005, 26 million people a month participate in the Food Stamp Program at a total cost of $28.6 billion. A third of those recipients are on welfare but two-thirds are working people who still fall below the poverty cut off. Despite the huge budget, the average food stamp benefit amounts to about $1.05 per person per meal.
Despite 40 years of food stamps, it is still estimated that one in ten people and one in six children still don’t get enough food.