The Food Stamp Program--the First 35 Years

Published on: 13:13PM Aug 21, 2019

The precursor to the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known previously as the Food Stamp Program), or SNAP, initially took the form of an experimental program established in 1939 in the throes of the Great Depression.  Under this program, recipients who were unemployed had to purchase a certain amount of stamps amounting to normal food consumption expenditures in order to receive additional stamps they could use to purchase select surplus foods.  For each dollar spent in the first category for ‘orange stamp’ foods, they received an additional $0.50 to purchase surplus foods in the form of ‘blue stamps’.  This effort was undertaken in part to reduce the stigma associated with unemployed persons having to stand in line to collect surplus commodities being distributed by the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation.  Funding was provided under Section 32 authority, which allowed the Secretary to ‘encourage the domestic consumption of farm products by diverting surpluses from normal channels’.   The pilot was first operated in the city of Rochester, New York, launched on May 16, 1939.
 The initial list of foods that were determined to be ‘in surplus’ under the experimental program included butter, cheese, fresh pears, eggs, apples, pork, fresh snap beans, potatoes, and whole wheat flour.   In 1941, many states made all fresh vegetables eligible for bonus purchases during the summer, while excluding canned or frozen produce. The program barred stores from selling soft drinks for either orange or blue stamps, a move that was not considered to be controversial at the time.  Peak participation in this early version of the food stamp program was about four million people, or about three percent of the U.S. population at that time.  During its short lifetime, this pilot cost $262 million ($4.4 billion in 2018 dollars).

Under wartime conditions, the U.S. economy improved, which boosted demand for food, leaving relatively few food products that could legitimately be designated as surplus. The U.S. unemployment rate had also dropped to only 1.9 percent by 1943. There were also widespread reports of fraud and abuse associated with the program. Rather than try to fix the program’s problems, the decision was made to terminate it in 1943. 

After an 15-year hiatus filled with federally commissioned reports and studies on the linkages between poverty and poor nutrition, Congress passed legislation offered by Representative Leonor Sullivan (D, MO) and Senator Hubert Humphrey (D, MN),  establishing a Food Stamp program in 1959.  This Food Stamp Act gave President Dwight Eisenhower the authority to conduct a food stamp pilot program, but his Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, chose not to utilize that authority.  Instead, President John F. Kennedy issued an Executive Order initiating a pilot food stamp program on January 21, 1961 (the day after his inauguration), utilizing existing Section 32 authority.  

The pilot program was launched in rural West Virginia and locations in seven other states, where Kennedy has seen the adverse impacts of poverty first-hand during the campaign.  The new pilot largely utilized the same approach as the 1939 experimental program, except that bonus purchases were no longer limited to commodities officially identified as surplus. This modification represented a shift from the earlier food stamp program for which farm support was a primary objective to a program somewhat more targeted to address hunger and malnutrition.   By January, 1964, the pilot had expanded to cover 43 areas in 22 states, enrolling 380,000 people.

Agriculture Secretary Freeman submitted legislative language to Congress to make the food stamp program permanent in April 1963.  The food stamp program was given explicit statutory authorization more than a year later, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, with the passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964.  Under this legislation, the federal government covered the cost of the bonus food purchased under the program, while the states bore the full cost of administering the program.  Congress did insist that the soft drink exclusion be dropped, asserting that the results of the pilot program had demonstrated it was not needed, and it was too administratively burdensome for retailers to carry out.  The only food items explicitly excluded from purchase were alcoholic beverages and imported foods.  Average participation more than doubled on an annual basis in its first ten years, growing from 561,000 in 1965 to 12.8 million in 1974.  Most of the early rapid growth in participation is attributable to geographic expansion of the program. Counties were added to the program as they made requests and as appropriations allowed.

In 1966, President Johnson appointed a National Commission on Rural Poverty, which eventually issued two reports, one entitled The People Left Behind in 1967, and the second called Rural Poverty in the United States, in 1968.  The first study found that there were 14 million rural poor in 1965 in the United States, four million of whom were living on farms.  In the following year, an independently-established Citizens Board of Inquiry looked into what was happening in 256 ‘hunger counties’ across the nation.  Their findings were aired on CBS show entitled “Hunger in America.” All these efforts raised the visibility of these issues to the American public.

President Richard Nixon responded to the new public pressure by calling for “…an end to hunger in America itself for all time” in May 1969, and asking his Secretary of Agriculture, Clifford Hardin, to prioritize use of the food stamp program over the commodity distribution program and to get rid of the stamp purchase requirement for the poorest households.  Initially, Hardin imposed some of the changes Nixon sought administratively, then Congress made additional changes in its 1971 amendments to the Food Stamp Act.  These changes included setting uniform national income and resource eligibility standards, capping the purchase requirement for low-income households, and increasing the federal share of administrative costs previously borne by state agencies to 50 percent.  Poor households in the U.S. overseas territories and possessions also were made eligible for the program under this legislation.

In a follow-up blog, I will cover more recent developments in this program after it became part of the formal farm bill process, starting in 1974.