Thursday, April 10, 2008

THINGS THAT WORK: FOOD STAMPS

JAMES D. WEILL, FOOD RESEARCH AND ACTION CENTER - One of the important success stories in low-income policy during this decade has been the Food Stamp Program. It has achieved broad-based political support and reached more people in need during a period of generally stagnating or declining spending on other forms of assistance to low-income households, such as unemployment insurance, TANF cash welfare and child care assistance. . .

In an article published last year, the National Journal called food stamps one of the 10 great successes in American society, describing the program as a "government reform that worked.". . .

The overall number of food stamp recipients increased from 17.2 million in an average month in 2000 to 26.5 million in an average month in 2007. Because of the nation's economic troubles, in the coming year, the number of people receiving food stamps is expected to hit 28 million, its highest level ever.

This growth has pushed more than $10 billion a year in desperately needed additional nutrition supports into the hands of low-income people. With the exception of Social Security, the Food Stamp Program now is roughly as large in the aggregate as any other public program that provides significant income support to low-income Americans.

Clearly food stamps have come a long way since the days of negative assertions about government fraud and waste. A combination of key reforms and effective outreach and advocacy helped food stamps maintain vital political support. . .

The replacement of food stamp coupons by electronic benefits cards has alleviated stigma at the grocery store check out line and strengthened the program's integrity. The result for elected officials is the kind of government benefit they can feel good about supporting. . .

The program connects family supports directly to the issue of hunger, which, for better or worse, has a resonance and power in our politics that "poverty" itself sometimes does not. . .

Food stamps bring to the table the support of disparate sectors, including the agriculture industry, food companies, grocery retailers, financial institutions that are EBT vendors, and the food bank and food pantry network.. . .

And food stamps come through quickly with relief for disaster victims. The program was rated among the very few federal government responses that were effective in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

To be sure, the Food Stamp Program still has structural weaknesses, and much room for growth. Benefits are too low for an adequate diet; asset rules are terribly outdated; and many of the arbitrary eligibility and benefit cuts enacted in 1996 have yet to be reversed. .

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