OCT 1, 2012, VOL. 18, NO. 03 • BY KATE HAVARD
This week, Congress is under pressure to pass the 2012 farm bill before the current legislation expires on September 30. About every five years, Congress pushes through a farm bill, ostensibly a big bundle of agriculture subsidies that also funds food stamps. But the name is misleading. Nearly 80 percent of the $1 trillion the 2012 bill would spend over the next 10 years would go to the food stamp program.
Food stamps originated in the Great Depression, when the federal government issued stamps to the poor and unemployed to “purchase” surplus foods. During World War II, the program was discontinued. Lyndon Johnson reintroduced it in 1964 as part of his War on Poverty. Starting in the late 1990s, paper stamps were phased out in favor of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, essentially debit cards. In 2008, the program was renamed SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in order to help individuals avoid the stigma associated with the program.
Spending on food stamps has always increased steadily, but over the last decade it has exploded. From 2001 to 2006, the budget for food stamps doubled; by 2013, it will have quadrupled. And as of June, a record 46.6 million people were enrolled.
So, what’s going on? Although many people are poorer now than they were 10 years ago, the growth of the food stamp rolls can’t just be chalked up to an abysmal economy. Ten years ago, close to 12 percent of Americans lived below the official poverty line; in June, that number was 15 percent. While the share of the population in poverty increased only 25 percent, spending on food assistance grew 400 percent.