The Department of Agricultures four-paragraph announcement in the Federal Register of a revision of categorical eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program didnt fool anyone: The government is proposing to kick 3.1 million people off food stamps. And while the proposal is being attacked for its cruelty, the better argument is that its unnecessary.
One of Americas oldest social-welfare programs is not really a social-welfare program at all. Begun in 1939, the original goal of the governments food stamp program was to alleviate agricultural surpluses. During the Great Depression it seemed ludicrous that farmers were stuck with produce that they could not sell while the urban poor were going hungry. The Department of Agriculture thus created stamps that could be bought for $1 and used to buy $1.50 worth of agricultural surplus.
Over time, the program increased has increased its emphasis on alleviating poverty. The requirement that food stamps be used to purchase surplus food, for example, was dropped in 1964. In 1977, food stamps became a direct benefit participants no longer had to buy them. Yet the tension between the programs two goals, helping farmers and addressing poverty, remained.