Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recently announced an end to the decades-old practice of allowing states to waive time limits for certain recipients of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the federal government's main domestic food aid program.
Perdue wants to enforce those limits on the millions of Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents between the ages of 18 and 49 who receive SNAP benefits, in an effort to “support movement to self-sufficiency.” The restrictions? Unless they work at least 80 hours per month, enroll in a job training program, or are granted a waiver, such recipients can receive no more than three months of benefits in any three-year period.
“Those who can work should work,” Purdue continued.
But this contention ignores the reality: While SNAP participants want to work, they “are more likely to work part-time hours when they would prefer a full-time schedule” and most “experience periods when they are out of work.” Moreover, evidence shows that programs such as SNAP and Meals on Wheels – which delivers food to the homebound elderly – effectively and efficiently serve the in-need population.
Purdue isn't actually proposing reform. Instead, he's perpetuating a cruel and decades-old myth, that recipients of public assistance milk the system, to justify slashing welfare budgets.
But this contention didn't always dominate thinking on the topic. There was a time when public assistance recipients were treated with dignity and empathy. That public officials from across the political spectrum have embraced this claim, however, has tainted policy conversations and threatens the well-being of millions of struggling Americans.
When Gerald Ford took office, the government sold food stamps – SNAP's predecessor – to qualifying recipients at a price equal to a percentage of total net income for families and individuals. Local administrators set prices on a case-by-case basis, taking into account income level, income source and family size. On average, the price of food stamps in 1975 was 23 percent of net income.
Alarmed by rising costs, President Ford ordered the Department of Agriculture to make significant reductions to the food stamp program. The agency proposed increasing the price of food stamps to 30 percent of net income for all food stamp recipients. According to the administration, the change would help to “check the growth” of the food stamp program and save $900 million combined in 1975 and 1976.
But unlike today, Congress immediately pushed back.
The administration's actions threatened to “place hardship on the poor,” Republican Rep. William Wampler of Virginia, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee, fumed. Rep. Joseph Vigorito, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, was “fed up to my eyeballs with well-fed people that get up and say that the poor and elderly have no right to eat.”
This frustration soon begot action.
In a direct rebuke to Ford, the House voted 374-38 to freeze food stamp prices for the remainder of 1975 after just 40 minutes of debate.
Pushing the freeze bill through the Senate proved more difficult because some senators seized on the moment to draw attention to a pet cause: fraud in the food stamp program. Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, regaled his colleagues: “I've heard reports of a man driving up to a supermarket in a Cadillac and purchasing $189 worth of steak with food stamps.” (Talmadge eventually backed off and supported the bill.)
When Sen. Carl Curtis threatened to slow the bill's passage by introducing an amendment requiring the USDA to investigate food stamp fraud, Sen. Robert Dole, a Republican from Kansas and a champion of the food stamp program, instead proposed that the Senate vote on a separate resolution with the same charge. Making it a separate resolution enabled the Senate to quickly pass the freeze bill by a margin of 76-8.
While Congress debated the freeze bill, what the New York Times reported was the “worst economic crisis since World War II,” had left 950,000 Americans newly jobless and produced an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.
These circumstances made a veto nearly impossible. Aides warned Ford that the poor needed to be “cushion[ed]” from “the impact of rising costs,” not subjected to increases.
Worried, however, that if he signed the legislation he risked becoming complicit in limiting the USDA's prerogative to shape the food stamp program, Ford allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
In the months that followed, the economy continued its downward spiral and enrollment in the food stamp program ballooned. By May of 1975, 19.4 million Americans – 9 percent of the country's population –- had signed up for food stamps, an increase of nearly 6 million in just less than a year. That month, Ford asked Congress for $890 million in supplemental aid to cover the additional enrollees; in July, he asked for another $3 billion.
Meanwhile, Congress struggled to settle on comprehensive food stamp reform. A handful of lawmakers from both parties was determined to liberalize the program.
Dole, for example, argued that food stamp applicants should be allowed to self-certify so that they could receive benefits immediately. “I am trying to impress my Republican friends that we are not anti-people,” Dole said. “We Republicans are always reacting to these programs. It seems time now for us to be responsive to people who are eligible and not being adequately served.”
In June, the Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Dole and Sen. George McGovern, D-South Dakota, to allow recipients to attest to their own eligibility.
But a few others, alarmed by flawed USDA warnings that forecast a dramatic increase in enrollment, pushed to shrink participation in the food stamp program by up to 50 percent.
Ford grew impatient with the speed of legislative reform and on Feb. 26, 1976, he proposed cutting 5.3 million people from food stamps and slashing benefits for another 5 million recipients, among other changes.
This time, it was the courts that stepped in, halting the administration's new rules from moving forward.
Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ruled that the USDA had “exceeded its Congressional mandate” and that “the public interest clearly demands that the proposed regulations not be effectuated in the face of comprehensive Congressional action aimed at correcting abuses and bringing considered reforms to the food stamp program.”
Congress kept trying. The Senate passed a bill that would have cut more than a million recipients from the program but also liberalized access for the country's poorest. Campaign-season politics, however, doomed its chances of becoming law in the 94th Congress.
If anything, the drama that unfolded around food stamps in 1975 and 1976 pointed to a fundamental truth: There is no quick fix for reforming the country's food assistance programs. It requires patience and cooperation between Congress and the executive branch.
While there was concern about fraud and abuse in the food stamp program in the 1970s, most Republicans and Democrats focused on a fundamental question: how to reach those in need. Elected officials approached that question carefully, with empathy and with kindness.
In subsequent decades, however, allegations of abuse, fraud and overuse have come to dominate the conversation. President Ronald Reagan popularized that idea, invoking images of a “welfare queen” and working to delegitimize spending on social welfare programs. “There's much more [fraud] than anyone realizes,” Reagan asserted.
Others have framed unemployment, underemployment and the need for assistance as a choice. “Anyone who can work, must,” President Bill Clinton argued, adding that the welfare system “defies our values as a nation.” That kind of rhetoric has devalued the idea of a government safety net and unjustly stigmatized recipients of public assistance.
The shift in the terms of the debate has obscured the heart of the matter. Food stamps are about the basic sustenance of human life, and a principle should guide our politics: no matter the costs – and no matter the potential for abuse by some – a democratic government and a decent society have a responsibility to feed those who are in need.
There is no doubt that improvements could be made to our system of public assistance. But reformers today must remember this: Government food assistance is the basis of survival for many families and individuals in need. Many of those on food assistance don't choose unemployment or underemployment. Economic conditions can change in the blink of an eye.
And history remembers fondly those who lead with compassion.
Dov Weinryb Grohsgal is associate research scholar in History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He wrote this for the Washington Post.