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New Day, Same Mission: The Evolution of SNAP

Posted by Jessica Shahin, Associate Administrator for SNAP in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
A collection of stamps and coupons from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Programs. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.
A collection of stamps and coupons from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Programs. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

This fall, USDA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Food Stamp Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which made the Food Stamp Program permanent.  In looking back over the past 50 years, there are two notable events in the program’s history that had a significant impact on the transformation of the original Food Stamp Program in 1964 to the program we know today as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

First, the Food Stamp Act of 1977 was a major program milestone, because it established national eligibility standards for participation and eliminated the purchase requirement for food stamps.  The new standards meant that the amount of benefits a household received depended on the household’s size, income, and expenses, a standard that remains today.  The elimination of the purchase requirement meant that people received their benefits upfront, without the intermediary step of purchasing the food stamp first.  The Food Stamp Act of 1977, therefore, removed a major barrier to participation in the program while also ensuring that benefits would be targeted to those most in need.  As a result, the mission of the Food Stamp Program to mitigate the effects of poverty was strengthened.

Second, while 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the first food stamp transaction in Rochester, NY, it also marks the 30th anniversary of the first Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) transaction in Reading, Pa.  EBT allowed food stamp recipients to pay for food at authorized stores, using an EBT card in the same way other customers used debit cards.  EBT also reduced program operating cost, leading states to distribute other types of benefits, such as unemployment benefits, through EBT as well.  The introduction of EBT ensured that the Food Stamp Program was integrated into the 21st century by reflecting consumer culture and, thereby, reduced program stigma.

Fast forwarding to 2014, EBT has transformed the way USDA provides nutrition assistance via SNAP. As of July 2004, all U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands now issue benefits electronically via an EBT card, marking the 10th anniversary of EBT implementation nationwide.  The trafficking rate has fallen significantly over the last two decades, thanks in part to EBT, leading to increases in program integrity and inspiring public confidence in SNAP.  Through all of these changes, the same mission to combat hunger and reduce poverty remains strong.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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