Saturday, December 11, 2010

Food stamps

I mentioned food stamps in passing in the previous post, and by coincidence Slate has an interesting essay up on the program's history.  As the article notes:
Of all the numbers quantifying this recession, few can match the grim precision of 42,911,042. That's the number of Americans, mostly children and the elderly, who used food stamps in September—521,428 more than in August, itself a record month, and 12 million more than in September 2008. In the past year, according to the Department of Agriculture, every state has seen its rolls swell—with increases ranging from 5.1 percent in West Virginia to 28.7 percent in Nevada.
It's an interesting piece -- the food stamps program is apparently one of the few social safety network items that conservatives actually like.  There are still a few who rail about it encouraging dependency, but the program is well-run with low administrative costs, it serves a direct need, and (although the article doesn't mention it) corporate giants like Archer Daniel Midlands and Cargill love it because it's basically an agriculture subsidy.   

I was happy to see in the article that USDA and state goverrnments are working hard at removing the stigma surrounding the the use of food stamps.  Back when the program started, Food Stamps were paper -- funny money that came in coupon books.  It was like going grocery shopping using Monopoly money.  It was also before the advent of smart cash registers, so shoppers had to carefully separate eligible from noneligible items, let the cashier ring the eligible up first, pay with Food Stamps, and then pay for the noneligible (anything not edible, like toilet paper and soap) stuff with cash. The paper funny money made it obvious to the whole world you were using Food Stamps, and also  provided ample time and opportunity for onlookers to editorialize about your grocery choices ("I can't believe she's buying Trix* for her kids with food stamps." [just give the urchins another bowl of gruel]) and perceived lifestyle ("She should get a job instead of leeching off the taxpayers.").  

Today, thanks to the combination of computerized checkout systems and the introduction of electronic benefit transfer cards, the public stigma is minimized, which in turn makes it lot more likely that the people who need the help food stamps provide will actually apply to receive them.  It's a government program that works.

The numbers do give reason to pause and wonder just how miserable conditions in this country are becoming:  14% of the populace is using Food Stamps, but it's pretty much accepted as fact that many people who are eligible will never apply to get them.  They're intimidated by the process, they don't want to be seen as taking a handout, they don't realize they're eligible, they don't want the visible stigma of using an EBT card at the grocery store. . .  

[*Another thing the poor aren't allowed to buy:  brand names. If you're poor, you must be content with generics or store brands.]


  1. twee

    Never seen that word before, and will never use it.

  2. I used to be a bagger for Krogers. I remember the discomfort of shoppers using food stamps. Sometimes it was palpable.


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