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Food Stamps: As American as Apple Pie

Food stamps in 1941

Food stamps used in 1941. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

One of Newt Gingrich’s most recent criticisms of President Obama has been that he is “the food stamp president.” Gingrich contrasts this with his own plans for the presidency, in which he assures the GOP debate audiences he would be a “paycheck president.”

But since the 1950s, every president has been a food stamp president. Food stamps have long drawn strong support from Republicans as well as Democrats. For most of their history, in fact, food stamps have been as American– and as bipartisan – as apple pie.

When food stamps (now SNAP) were originally designed in the late-1930s, the main voices behind the program were not social welfare advocates. They were business leaders, especially grocers and wholesale distributors. Food stamps were born as conservative, pro-business policy.

In the early 1930s, before food stamps, hunger was addressed through what we might now disapprovingly label “hand outs.” The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation handed out overproduced agricultural goods from the back of trucks or to people waiting in long, public lines. There was no American-style choice in commodities for recipients. More importantly, this direct relief kept low-income Americans out of grocery stores or other capitalist channels of consumption.

Food stamps, on the other hand, allowed low-income Americans to continue to participate in typical American consumption culture. They chose their own foodstuffs, albeit with some limitations. They paid at the check-out line, albeit with coupons instead of dollars. The food stamp program was designed specifically to promote (and in the eyes of some politicians of the time, even to “teach”) mainstream American economics. They were a direct counterpoint to programs accused of creating dependency.

Food stamps were intended as an extremely conservative social welfare program. Even Business Week lauded the 1930s creation of the food stamp program, and the head of the government program (a businessman-turned-politician himself) thought that the business-government model of welfare they had developed was more important than their having created the stamps themselves.

World War II killed this original incarnation of food stamps, and the program was not reintroduced again until Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the mid-1960s. In the late-1970s, the program was retooled by the pro-stamps duo of Democrat George McGovern and Republican Bob Dole. Still the food stamp program had all the same features of that of the 1930s: mainstream shopping, pseudo-money, and relative free choice in purchasing. Indeed, experiments now seek to make food stamps even more like “normal” consumption as some communities develop ways to use food stamp funds at farmer’s markets.

Food banks fill an important void in communities across the nation, especially for those who need only very short term relief, or those who want to avoid the scrutiny of the public welfare office. Food banks also can supplement food stamp benefits, which are often quite stingy. But local food banks and other food charities are often opposite many of the consumption principles Americans hold dear. They separate poor and working class consumption from middle class American consumption, and limit potential customers’ grocery store needs.

Since Gingrich, many have tried to counter the claim. Obama himself argued that the true food stamp president was George W. Bush, for creating the economic crisis that brought us here. Really, it’s pretty hard to explicitly blame Obama for an increase in food stamp use during recession years. In the tough economic years of the 1970s, with Richard Nixon in office, food stamp use went up. When Democrat Bill Clinton was in office during the boom years of the late 1990s, food stamp use went down. Food stamp use has now gone up almost every year since 2000, no matter who has been sitting in the Oval Office.

Notably, it is not just the recession that has raised food stamp participation. Since the late 1990s, there has been an expansion in eligibility for food stamps. In particular, the 2002 Farm Bill provided states with more flexibility in how they organized food stamp benefits. Many states used more flexible rules to increase the eligibility of working families for food stamps. So food stamp accessibility actually increased under George W. Bush. Moreover, this was accessibility for working families, undermining the dichotomy between “paycheck” and “food stamp” presidencies in current political rhetoric.

This partisan divide, however, may be wholly rhetorical. While food stamps have been thrown around as campaign slurs, actual food stamp policy has not been on the table so far this election. In the 1996 presidential election, Republicans challenged Bill Clinton’s resistance to the welfare (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) reform bills that had crossed his desk. Critics charged him with being soft, and enabling dependency on the state. Just three months before the 1996 election, then, Clinton finally passed a conservative welfare reform plan.  The food stamp program is not – at the moment – a substantive issue of this sort in the 2012 election.

So “food stamp president” is primarily a rhetorical jab. A jab whose power rests on a widespread ignorance of the history of the program and the role it has played in the 20th century US economy.

Rachel Louise Moran is a PhD candidate at Penn State University and a current Miller Center Fellow

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