TBT: 1977 Food Stamp Act
By Alyssa Berg
Throughout United States history, domestic nutrition aide has been a key aspect of social welfare programming. During the Great Depression, food stamps were introduced to help distribute this aide and to ensure ease of access, and since then they have proved to be a vital component in nutrition aide legislation. However, support for food stamps has not always been unanimous, with divisions arising both along partisan lines as well as between state and federal government interests.
After World War II, the need for domestic food aide decreased significantly, leading to the decline of food stamp programs. In the early 1960s, however, President Kennedy began trials of new initiatives tailored to meet post-war needs. His plans met mixed support, but were continued and officially implemented as part of President Johnson’s sweeping social reforms, known as the “Great Society.”
Under this new legislation, food aide was designated as a federal program, but the responsibility of implementation fell to state governments. The program expanded rapidly, and with its popularity came exponential administrative cost increases for the states. This concerned congressional Republicans, who feared that the burden was too much for states to bear. Thus, Republicans began to enact legislation aimed at reducing program costs through restricted access to the program.
Eligibility requirements became stricter as a result, which in turn worried congressional Democrats. They feared that not all families in need of nutrition aide would be able to take advantage of the program’s vital resources, defeating the original goals of efficiency, effectiveness, and ease of access. Thus, a debate about how best to utilize food stamp programs ensued with clear partisan divisions.
Throughout the mid-1970s, congressional Democrats and Republicans struggled to find common ground on which to compromise, and families in need paid the price of partisan divisions. Then, Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern (a Republican and a Democrat, respectively) crossed party lines to begin working toward real, substantive change. Their bipartisan efforts considered the concerns of both sides and worked to produce a piece of policy that would not only please both parties and the President, but would also address the true needs of hungry families across the nation.
In 1977, the Food Stamp Act was signed into law with bipartisan support. The new program redefined eligibility requirements to ensure that families most in need were targeted. The provision stating that eligible families must purchase the stamps was eliminated, federal government support of the state costs was increased, the reach of the program was expanded to minority communities, and college students’ access was restricted. All of these measures helped to funnel the programs’ resources to those who needed the aide most, while simultaneously streamlining costs and making the program more cost-efficient.
Today, food stamps still function as a vital pillar of domestic food aide distribution in this country, and as the political landscape changes over time, so does discussion about how to make the program most effective. However, Senators Dole and McGovern set an important precedent for focused debate both during their time and in ours. The needs of those who use the program should outweigh partisan divisions, and compromise is essential to the food stamp program’s success.