The Changing Face of Food Stamps

Marilyn C. Lewis
July 12, 2002

Nadio Owjama, 24, pulls into the parking lot of a Seattle welfare office, and unstraps 4-year-old Amal from her car seat. As she hoists the girl to her hip, the strain is visible on her face. Owjama is six months pregnant. Her doctor ordered her to quit her job in a daycare center so she could rest from lifting children all day.

But Nadio has an appointment, so she hurries awkwardly toward the office with the squirming Amal in her arms. Without food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the program that replaced welfare in the 1990s, Nadio, her two children and the baby on the way would have to return to a homeless shelter.

Nadio, a single mother, fled the war in Somalia where, she says, she had been raped by militia men. Too scared to return home, she escaped to Kenya and, two years ago, to a Seattle shelter where she and her two children lived until a court granted her refugee status, allowing her to collect government assistance. She left food stamps and TANF to work but returned for help two months ago when the doctor ordered rest.

"I want to go back to work this month," she says. When she does, she can get food stamps if she earns too little to feed her family. This bridge to independence is crucial for Nadio and 7.5 million American households receiving a monthly average of food stamps worth $74.76 per person.

Food stamps—a critical support
Food stamps are a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with roots in a government effort in the late Depression to help the economy by purchasing farmers' surplus crops. Purchases kept farm prices up and allowed for the distribution of the surplus food to the needy, says Doug Hurt, agricultural historian at Iowa State University. The program was dropped in World War II and then revived by the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s.

Food stamps remain a critical support for low-income families. More than half the recipients are children, and some 80 percent of the benefits go to families with children.

When Congress revamped welfare in 1996, the food stamp program remained an "entitlement" program, guaranteeing food assistance to everyone eligible. Even though poor families may hit time limits on welfare cash assistance or states may run out of welfare block grant funds, the food stamp program remains available to eligible families in need.

But the welfare reform law of 1996 restricted food stamp eligibility, excluding legal immigrants. The 1996 law also restricted a range of public benefits (including welfare, Medicaid and SSI) to lawfully present immigrants. While provisions in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and other legislation partially restored SSI and food stamp eligibility to lawfully present immigrants who entered the country prior to 1996, many immigrants are still barred from the basic safety net services their tax dollars support. Under current law, states can only use their own dollars -- not federal TANF dollars -- for cash assistance, Medicaid, SCHIP, food stamps or child care for many categories of lawfully present immigrants.

In May, President Bush won praise from immigrant groups and others when he restored the eligibility of legal immigrants for food stamps by signing the 2002 Farm Bill.

Evolving reform
However, in May the House of Representatives included in its version of TANF reauthorization a provision for block granting food stamps in five states. If passed into law as part of the welfare reform reauthorization, this pilot program would assign each of five states, still to be determined, a block of money based on what food stamps cost there previously. Unlike today, the states would get no increases if, for example, a recession hits. The benefit for states is that they get huge discretion in spending the money.

That's what worries critics. Not only would a state's food stamps funds be spread thin if the need increases, but states could reimburse themselves for what they now must contribute to administration, employment and training—bleeding food assistance.

A Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report, Five-State Food Stamp Block Grant Proposal in House Welfare Bill Would Risk Serious Harm to Low-Income Families, says that fiscal conditions are approaching a state of crisis in a number of states. The temptation could be intense to divert food stamps funds to help balance budgets, and states could cut or eliminate benefits to any group of individuals.

The CBPP analysts say that the pilot program proposed in the House TANF bill contains no way to evaluate the program, leaving its effectiveness open to question. The Senate's TANF legislation, which does not yet have such a provision, has yet to be considered on the Senate floor.

Nearly 8.2 million people left food stamp programs between 1996 and 2000. Welfare reform and the then-booming economy were responsible only for about 35 percent of the drop, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service found. Another 8 percent who left weren't eligible for other reasons. But 56 percent, the largest amount by far, were still eligible and extremely poor. The USDA concluded that these families, most freshly off welfare, either didn't know they were eligible—case workers were partly blamed—or were unwilling to endure the bureaucracy guarding the gates.

In the view of Julia Riley Moore, administrator of the state Department of Social and Health Services office where Nadio gets her food stamps, "a lot of clients, once they were off TANF and they were successful at finding jobs and coming off of welfare—you don't want to go through the bureaucracy again, even if you're eligible," Moore says. "You may be eligible for only $10 or $20. They don't want to go through it for that. You or I wouldn't want to go through it for that."

Today, with a worsened economy, food stamps participation rates are rising again, with 17.3 million participants in 2001, a level last seen in 1979. This is about 150,000 people more than in 2000, the low point in recent times. But the push for rules that embrace more eligible, needy people continues. And at the grinding edge where policy meets poverty, working people, one of whom Nadio Owjama hopes soon to be, continue trying to meld government help with work in a climate of changing policies and practices.

  • For more information on the characteristics of immigrant access to food stamps, see the article by Sonya Schwartz, NAPIL Equal Justice Fellow at the Food Research Action Center.
  • See the Food Research and Action Center's Chart on the Farm Bill's restoration of food stamps to immigrants.
  • Read the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report,Five-State Food Stamp Block Grant Proposal in House Welfare Bill Would Risk Serious Harm to Low-Income Families

Marilyn C. Lewis is a freelance writer and marketing consultant living in Port Townsend, Washington. Comments about this story? E-mail editor Susan Phillips.