The Food Stamp Program: Its History and Reform

Article excerpt

Jodie T. Allen was senior vice president of Mathematica Policy Research, a national research and development firm, when this article was published in the summer of 1977.

Sometime this summer, perhaps even before this is published, the "food stamp question" will be given at least a temporary answer by the enactment or failure of enactment of legislation to extend the life of the program beyond its scheduled expiration on September 30,177. Whatever the legislative outcome, it will be the product of a stormy debate that has raged on and off for almost three years. [Editor's note: The legislation was enacted.]

It was not always this way, of course. For years, the food stamp program enjoyed a relatively charmed existence nurtured carefully by a relatively small group of nutrition-minded liberals m the Congress and tolerated by their normally conservative-minded colleagues. After all, you cannot be against feeding the poor. What changed all this was simple. The food stamp program suddenly grew up and, in the process, drew to itself the public and congressional concern that in previous years had been directed to the cash welfare programs during their period of maximum growth.

rood stamp costs and caseloads experienced their sharpest rates of growth during 1974 and the first half of 1975, a period float saw both mandatory nationwide implementation of the program and rapidly rising rates of unemployment. At the end of 1973, 12.7 million persons were receiving food stamps, with a monthly bonus value of $193 million, or about $2.3 billion a year. By April 1975, participants had increased by 54 percent to 19.5 million, and annual program costs had risen by 139 percent to over $5 billion annually.

Public and congressional concern over this precipitous growth was sharpened by various expert estimates that even with almost twenty million participants, the program had only begun to tap the reservoir of potential eligibles, currently estimated to be over thirty million.

Friends and Foes

The debate over the program as it now exists cuts across the classic liberal-conservative barricades. Proponents of food stamps include conservatives who like the fact that the recipients must pay something for the stamps and the fact that relief in the form of stamps assures that public benefits are not used to buy cars or color television sets. There are those among the friends of the program who contend that the built-in food purchase requirement is a protection for the poor against their own weak budgeting habits. Others on both sides of the liberal-conservative fence argue that food stamps ate less of a social stigma than cash welfare and, hence, are more acceptable to certain classes of the poor, particularly the aged.

The program's conservative critics consider it inefficient because it requires another layer in the public assistance bureaucracy and because "funny money'' is difficult to issue, distribute, and redeem. More liberal critics argue that food stamps limit the choices of the recipients as to how to allocate their expenditures to meet their needs, and counter proponent's arguments of a lessened stigma by noting that food stamps are a highly identifiable form of public assistance.

At high levels of the previous administration, views also differed--no one liked the program, but for different reasons. President Ford proposed in January 1975 to raise the price of stamps as a budget-cutting measure, thus fueling the current debate. Many in the Office of Management and Budget and in HEW [the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] saw (and still see) the program as an impediment to welfare reform, particularly if large numbers of middle-income person, unlikely beneficiaries of any cash welfare program, come to participate. To Treasury Secretary [William E.] Simon, the program was a "haven for the cheats and tip-off artists."

At lower levels of the bureaucracy and among many in the Congress, the program received kinder attention. …