Written By: Shanzeh Mirza, Student Policy Associate
Food insecurity is a global issue no matter where we look, and with increasing prices everywhere– in gas, housing, education, etc.– food prices are no exception to this trend.
Issues of rising food prices in the U.S. have been discussed in every era, leading the US federal government to introduce what we know as the food stamps program in 1939 to spark excitement. Participants in the program bought orange stamps for purchasing various items, excluding alcohol, tobacco, and store-consumed foods. For every $1 of orange stamps, they received $0.50 in blue stamps, which could be used to buy surplus commodities listed in the store, such as dry beans, flour, cornmeal, eggs, and fresh vegetables. At its peak, the program functioned in approximately half of the counties in the United States, catering to around 4 million individuals per month.
As expected, the program garnered significant popularity among the general public, participants, and grocers. However, by 1943, the program was discontinued due to diminished surplus availability caused by wartime efforts and decreased unemployment rates. What we then knew popularly as ‘food stamps’ went through an innovative rebranding to accommodate for increased hunger-related poverty, now named ‘SNAP Benefits.’ Through SNAP, the concept and steps itself are simple, relying on a brief application. Individuals’ answers determine whether or not they qualify for SNAP. If they do, the government sends the individual an electronic benefit (EBT) card, which provides a stipend to purchase groceries from eligible stores. Benefits are determined by household size and are refunded monthly as long as individuals continue to qualify. However, certain items, like hot foods, alcoholic beverages, and pet food cannot be purchased with the SNAP electronic card.
According to the Pew Research Center, “on average, 41.2 million people in 21.6 million households received monthly SNAP benefits in the 2022 fiscal year, which ran from October 2021 through September 2022.” At its peak this year in 2023, SNAP benefits were serving 12.5% of the population. That’s 41.9 million people.
SNAP has been regarded as one of the best federal programs as of yet, so what is it about this federal nutritional program that is better than the rest? Why is it here to stay?
Multiple sources attribute various economic benefits that the food program provides to the overall economy. For example, improved access to SNAP benefits led to an 18 percent increase in high school graduation rates, resulting in greater participation in advanced career fields. Additionally, women who received food stamps during their early years are more financially self-reliant as adults. These women are more likely to graduate from high school, secure employment with higher earnings, and are less inclined to rely on programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Additionally, the SNAP program is designed to accommodate the changing nature of the U.S. economy. SNAP participation and benefits are able to naturally expand when the economy weakens and contract when it strengthens. “An increase of $1 billion in SNAP benefits in a slowing economy increases GDP by $1.54 billion and supports 13,560 additional jobs, including nearly 500 agricultural jobs (farming, forestry, fishing, and hunting).”
2: (FNS, 2012d)
4: Pew Research