America’s food stamp program — It’s welfare, but not as we know it

American conservatives hate welfare. But under President Bush, they willingly expanded food stamps — a program that hands out over than 64 billion of dollars worth of assistance a year to low-income Americans and legal immigrants.

The reason? Many conservatives don’t think the food stamps program is welfare.

Ending welfare

In 1992 Bill Clinton ran for office promising to "end welfare as we know it". And by the end of his presidency, he boasted that the 1996 welfare reform legislation had cut caseloads in half and moved millions of parents from welfare to work.

This is the part of America’s welfare reform story that everyone knows — the introduction of time limits, the tougher work requirements and the drastic decline in caseloads. The 1996 welfare reforms ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and replaced with with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

… but not food stamps

But there’s more to the American welfare state than cash payments to jobless single mothers. A part of the story most people don’t know is the growth of the food stamp program. Initially caught up in the Clinton administration’s attack on welfare, the program grew rapidly under George W Bush when eligibility conditions were relaxed and policy makers made benefits easier and less stigmatising to claim.

Now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), this program helps low-income Americans and legal immigrants to buy food. Recipients get an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card that they can use to buy food at supermarkets and other stores. The cards cannot be used to buy things like cigarettes, alcohol, hot food, shampoo or pet food.

In a recent piece for Slate, Annie Lowrey writes:

President George W. Bush appointed Eric Bost as his undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services at the USDA, and the two went on a quiet crusade to expand eligibility, increase enrollment, and reduce stigma around nutrition aid. In 2002, for instance, Bush announced his support for letting legal immigrants apply for benefits, and he pushed the provision into the farm bill—granting about 300,000 more people eligibility at a multibillion-dollar federal cost. Bost also expanded the size of and outreach for SNAP, "reflecting the administration’s commitment to the nutrition safety net"—no mention of welfare there. In negotiations around the 2008 farm bill, the Bush administration took a final, fateful step to reduce stigma and pull the program into the 21st century. The USDA officially rebranded food stamps as SNAP benefits, with a focus on nutrition rather than free food.

The cocktail of rising unemployment, stagnant wages, eased access to support programs, and purposeful destigmatization during the Bush administration meant that rolls swelled—from 17 million when he took office to 28 million when he left. That caused some consternation among conservatives. But the administration pushed back. "I don’t have any problems with those programs growing, and indeed, they were intended to grow," Ron Haskins, a Bush adviser, told the Associated Press in 2007.

Because it’s not welfare

"I assure you," said Bush’s food stamp administrator Eric Bost, "food stamps is not welfare". And many conservative state governors seemed to agree.

Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson is famous for overseeing some of the toughest welfare reforms in the country. But at the same time as his administration was pushing welfare recipients into work, it was bragging about how many families it had signed up for food stamps. Wisconsin’s secretary of workforce development described the program as a supportive service that helped people "climb out of poverty and become self-sufficient".

Of course not all conservatives support food stamps. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector complains that "Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s really not different from cash welfare". But despite pockets of opposition, there’s a remarkable level of support for food stamps among conservative legislators and the public.

In a 2004 paper, the University of Maryland’s David Super explains how food stamps survived the conservative war on welfare. Super argues that public-benefits law fuses expressive and functional elements. Politicians "tend to set policy in order to make symbolic statements about their vision of a moral society" he writes. But rules designed to make symbolic statements often prove inefficient and unworkable. So once the statements are made and attention shifts to other issues, administrators and legislators often have to adjust the rules to make the programs work.

According to Super, most of the players in debates over expressive policies "lack the expertise or interest to develop mechanisms by which those values can be translated into reality or to realize the costs of attempting to do so." Administrators along with the small number of legislators with an ongoing interest in a program tend to be more pragmatic and more focused on efficiency.

Along with advocates for low-income Americans this second, pragmatic group was able to reform food stamps in a way that protected the program from expressive attacks. This meant removing or softening features that signal to the public that it is a ‘welfare’ program.

According to Super:

… a "welfare" program may be distinguished as a program that possesses, or is seen to possess, some combination of the following characteristics: It (1) provides ongoing cash assistance on the basis of need; (2) based on eligibility criteria that take no account of, or penalize, employment; (3) to an unpopular and unemployed population that seems foreign to much of the middle-class; (4) through a public bureaucracy; (5) administered in a manner that seems to encourage fraud and behavior abhorrent to middle-American values.

Food stamps avoid the first marker by offering in-kind assistance rather than cash. Reformers avoided the second and third by including as many low-wage workers as possible. Expanding the program’s reach helped shake off its image as a program that encouraged joblessness and subsidised underclass lifestyles.

Drawing more of the working poor into the food stamp program required an in-depth knowledge of how the program was administered. Part of the difficulty lay in Federal quality control (QC) requirements. According to Super, "the QC system was structured so that close to half the states would be subject to sanctions each year, no matter how they performed." In order to avoid sanctions, state administrators burdened households — particularly working households — with paperwork and reporting requirements. Predictably, this discouraged participation and generated hostility from the states. In addition, state efforts to reduce errors fed into public perceptions that fraud was common. According to Super, the state of Ohio put up signs on buses and movie theatres "suggesting that welfare fraud was widespread with the stated object of prompting more citizen reports."

By dealing with the program’s QC issues, food stamps came to look less like ‘welfare’ and more like a program that supported work.


American public opinion might lean towards conservatism, but it is not hostile to those in poverty. A widely discussed paradox in US public opinion is that many Americans want their government to do more to support the poor, but at the same time want it to cut spending on welfare.

Experience with the food stamp program suggests that reformers can improve support to low-income Americans by recrafting anti-poverty measures to avoid the features that mark programs as ‘welfare’. By doing so they can avoid intractable conflicts with opponents who see the debate as a way of expressing a moral position but who neither know or care about how programs actually work.

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Ken Parish
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
11 years ago

There’s a lot in common between food stamps in the US and “income management” as it has developed in the NT subsequent to the Howard/Brough Intervention. Income management requires welfare recipients to receive half of their welfare benefits by way of a “Basics Card” that can only be spent on basic food and clothing.

Quite a few people whose judgments I respect support income management/Basics Card program because it allows women and children to avoid the thuggery and intimidation of aggressive males who would otherwise stand over them to surrender the whole of their welfare payment so it can be used for alcohol, drugs, gambling or porn. The program is currently being extended to cover all welfare recipients in the NT, not just people in designated remote Indigenous communities. I gather the ultimate plan, subject to results, is to expand it to nationally It will be fascinating to watch community reactions as the program is expanded.

Of course, the key difference between Income Management/Basics Card and US food stamps is that the former is inextricably tied to welfare benefits properly so called (in that it simply restricts how welfare recipients may spend 50% of their benefits) whereas food stamps are available to qualifying low income Americans whether or not they are recipients of general welfare benefits. Is that correct?i.e. Can Americans qualify for food stamps even though they are in the (low) paid workforce?

11 years ago

I was advocating non-financial direct welfare some years back and got told, “nobody is starving” and “just give them cash”. This was also in the context of housing commission which is a different type of non-financial direct welfare (and has been somewhat controversial in Australia).

A part of the story most people don’t know is the growth of the food stamp program.

Maybe people reading the newspapers don’t know much about it, but the blogs have been on about it for a year or more. Not so much because pundits are disapproving, but because they are stunned at just how many people in a first-world nation are struggling with the basics of life, and how fast the number is growing. I’m tempted to say that without the food stamps program we would already be seeing wide scale social breakdown in the USA.

American public opinion might lean towards conservatism, but it is not hostile to those in poverty. A widely discussed paradox in US public opinion is that many Americans want their government to do more to support the poor, but at the same time want it to cut spending on welfare.

There’s no paradox. People calling themselves “progressive” have run around with so much propaganda about the “heartless conservative who hates the poor” they have that caricature now stuck in their own heads. Conservatives don’t want the poor to sit and suffer, they just want the poor to go and get jobs. Besides that, conservatives typically are better attuned to sniffing out efficiency improvements.

A starving man can’t work (even with the best free medical care in the world). Feeding him now is a whole lot cheaper than taking him to hospital next week.

Direct food welfare is efficient because it is difficult to scam (what are you going to do, eat three times as many meals?) and not overly intrusive on someone’s personal freedom (doesn’t require huge government departments micromanaging exactly who gets each little detail).

Direct housing welfare can be efficient, provided no attempt is made to build luxury housing — mass produce and build to a budget and you can have a basic “good enough” house to everyone who needs one. The Freddie Mac / Fannie Mae system had the braindead result of putting poor people into giant houses spread across sprawling suburbs in some bizarre ritual pretending to create wealth — we all know how that ended up, we just haven’t finished tallying up the bill yet.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
11 years ago

One problem with public housing is that it creates fairly brutal disincentives. Moving is very stressful and traumatic.

Short of having public housing rates progressively rise to something above market rates, I don’t think it will ever work all that well (and even then it will still be problematic). The queues will be with us for good on that front.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

There’s another reason US conservatives like food stamps. The clue lies in which Department administers it – the Department of Agriculture.

It was originally introduced in 1936 so the poor could consume food – but that was from compassion for farmers, not the poor. It helped support the price of food in tough times, and that’s still the reason mid-western congressmen want it. They have an interesting set of values.

11 years ago

One problem with public housing is that it creates fairly brutal disincentives.

Not if they are built to a serviceable but decidedly non-luxury standard. Everyone wants a nice house in a nice neighbourhood — it’s a huge status symbol. More than that, if the government subsidized housing is cheap and mass produced, then no slum-lord will be able to compete on price offering something of lower quality, so you can throw away the micromanagement fine-print building codes at the same time and let the free market handle all the luxury housing (which will be where 90% of the money goes into).

It was originally introduced in 1936 so the poor could consume food – but that was from compassion for farmers, not the poor. It helped support the price of food in tough times, and that’s still the reason mid-western congressmen want it.

Stable food prices, and stable agricultural communities are good for any nation. If you have farmers going out of business one year then next year there’s a short crop and the food prices shoot up, the poor are hit twice as hard, and the farmers thrown off their land join your ranks of poor. It’s a tiny fraction of the cost of bank bailouts, mortgage looting, and industrial stimulus plans and gives far more tangible return. Once you allow the family farms to get trampled, they are replaced with agribusiness which gradually sets up a monopoly and enforces stable (high) food prices by maintaining controlled scarcity.

James A
James A
11 years ago

The Terrible, Awful Truth About Supplemental Security Income talks about another program the author claims is responsible for preventing social breakdown in the US.

11 years ago

I have difficulty understanding how the US basic hourly wage rate has remained stuck at around $6 an hour for at least a decade. There seems to be no political consensus to increase this pathetic labour cost, unimaginable in Oz with our regular minimum award wage claims.
I guess that one of the reasons for such a low labour cost is that subsidised food is available through the FSP.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
11 years ago

Tel — I wasn’t referring to the quality of the housing. I was referring to the disruption caused by moving out of public housing as your economics circumstances improve. Moving house always sucks, no matter how you do it.

11 years ago

Pablo @ 9

From what I glean from this, the wages you quote are not liveable, but with the food stamps, people can survive.

From that point of view is not the food stamp program effectively a subsidy to those industries that employ people on the minimum wage, rather than welfare?

If in fact, the food stamps program allows low wage employers to thrive, and for farmers to have a stable market, those two things by themselves would provide enough support from the conservative side of politics.

The fact that they can appear to be charitable to the poor is merely icing on the cake.