Second only to unemployment insurance, the food stamp program is the most effective safety net support to families in difficult economic times. A record 46.7 million Americans rely on food stamps today. Not surprisingly food stamp use has grown dramatically in recent years, tracking closely with high unemployment following the deepest recession and slowest recovery the country has experienced since the Great Depression.
Republicans have chided Barack Obama as the food stamp president and sponsored legislation to cut back on benefits sharply and tighten eligibility. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, proposed converting food stamps to a block grant program, the exact wrong response. That would prevent the program from expanding during times of economic distress, which is what it is intended to do.
Many middle-class Americans whose taxes helped pay for food stamps when the economy was stronger need this help now for the first time in their lives. These people are Republicans and Democrats, from blue states and red states. They shouldn't have to meet higher eligibility standards for assistance.
Moreover, food stamps are a boost to the sagging economy. Every increase in food stamp benefits generates $1.71 in economic activity. This benefits communities hardest hit by the recession, directly and immediately. Food stamp dollars are spent at local grocery stores. They free up cash that hard-pressed families can then use for rent, utilities and other basic needs.
California, which traditionally lagged behind other states in the rate of food stamp use, has enacted recent reforms that will help to get more food assistance to people who need it. The Legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed bills last year that changed how often recipients have to reapply from every three months to every six months, the standard in most states, and that eliminated the requirement that applicants submit to finger imaging before receiving benefits. Those changes make food stamp access easier for needy recipients and they reduce counties' costs of administering the program. These are good steps forward.
The food stamp program, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP as it is formally called, is a measure of our collective good. In hard times especially, it needs to be supported not attacked by politicians wanting to score points stigmatizing those who have fallen on hard times.