The Food Stamp Program Is An Overwhelming Success. That Might Also Be Its Downfall.

Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress could cut benefits for millions.

In 1968, CBS showed a baby die on national television. 

The hourlong “Hunger in America” program opened with a doctor using his thumb to try to pump air into the lungs of an emaciated baby. Viewers might have assumed the child was starving in some remote, developing country until the narrator assured them otherwise.

“He was an American,” the narrator says as the infant’s shoulder sags. “Now, he is dead.”

The show aired when there was an intense focus on hunger. Congress had held hearings on the issue, and the year before the CBS report, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) made a high-profile trip to the Mississippi Delta to draw attention to the plight of starving children (and to himself, since he would soon be a presidential candidate).

On his visit to the delta, Kennedy saw a 2-year-old girl sitting on the floor in the backroom of a windowless shack. “This little kid seems not to be able to stand up, but seems old enough to be able to stand up,” Peter Edelman, a Kennedy aide who accompanied the senator, recalled in an interview. “So he kneels down and spends, who knows, five minutes maybe ― it seemed like a very long time ― trying to get a response from this child.”

The child’s mother explained they had no money and couldn’t afford food stamps. Kennedy had seen poverty all around the world, but claimed he’d never seen anything as bad as what he saw in Mississippi. “He was absolutely shocked,” Edelman said.

Kennedy’s hunger trip triggered visits from doctors, researchers and journalists ― including the CBS reporters. And those news reports led President Richard Nixon, who hailed the CBS report and wanted to get ahead of Democrats on the hunger issue, to urge lawmakers to liberalize domestic food assistance policies.

“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable,” Nixon wrote in a 1969 message to Congress, adding that “the moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America itself.”

An early version of the food stamp program started around the end of the Great Depression, when lawmakers wondered why the U.S. government had intervened to help struggling farmers by buying up excess crops, but didn’t have a program for hungry people. In the decade after Nixon’s message, Congress gradually expanded the program and removed barriers to enrollment, including the requirement that poor people use their own money to purchase stamps. Enrollment surged from 2.8 million in 1969 to a peak of 47 million in 2013, amid the fallout of the Great Recession. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as it is now known, has grown from a tiny pilot project to one of the most important safety net programs in the U.S.

The starvation that once prevailed in the Mississippi Delta and elsewhere in the U.S. has basically been wiped out. Today, the U.S. faces what seems to be the opposite problem: widespread obesity fueled by an overabundance of cheap, unhealthy food. In other words, the conditions that justified the expansion of food stamps have changed drastically.

Nixon said action to alleviate hunger would be “recalled with pride,” but Republican rhetoric about food stamps is more typically tinted with shame. They describe it as yet another failed safety net program ― something that’s cost hundreds of billions of dollars but hasn’t decisively won the War on Poverty. And now they have their best chance in years to radically change the program in a way that would make America hungry again.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump said hardly anything about food stamps, except to complain about the number of people receiving benefits ― which was roughly 42 million as of May, at an annual cost of about $70 billion. Both numbers have been declining in recent years.

In the budget proposal his administration released last month, the president recommended spending reductions for SNAP that were more substantial than what House Republican leaders had sought under President Barack Obama.

The federal government currently funds the entire cost of benefits, but under Trump’s proposal, states would have to absorb 25 percent of that burden. States would also be given more leeway to change eligibility rules and benefit levels, which they would have a strong incentive to do if the federal government isn’t paying the full cost. That would mean fewer people qualifying for the program.

But budgets are just ideological wish lists. Any changes to the program would have to come from Republicans in Congress, and it’s hard to tell what they really want right now. They have said repeatedly that they want to reform food stamps. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has advocated for limiting federal welfare spending and delegating the actual work of kicking people off benefits to the states for years, for both food stamps and Medicaid. But House Republicans didn’t specifically say they would adopt Trump’s proposal.

It’s possible the Trump administration merely used a SNAP cut to show it could balance the budget on paper, but has no real appetite for what would certainly be a bruising policy fight. Or the budget could foreshadow just such a fight, perhaps even serving as an opening gambit to make less drastic cuts from congressional Republicans look reasonable by comparison.

There is no doubt that changes to food stamps are coming. The program gets reauthorized every five years as part of what is known colloquially as the “farm bill.” It’s paired with agricultural subsidies, which is what makes both policies politically strong, giving rural lawmakers reason to support food stamps and urban lawmakers reason to support farm welfare.

The next farm bill reauthorization is due in 2018, and the agriculture committees in the House and Senate have been slowly laying the groundwork for new policy through a series of hearings. The Republicans on the committees tend to favor modest changes, but party leaders don’t always respect a slow, deliberate effort to achieve bipartisan consensus.

During the last reauthorization in 2013, the House and Senate committees crafted competing bills, only to see Republican leadership blow up the process at the last minute. Then-House  Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) tried to cut benefits and separate food stamps from farm subsidies through a series of amendments on the House floor, but ultimately failed to get what conservatives wanted ― a scenario that could recur this go-around if they try to take a hatchet to the program again.

Even the compromise bill, which Obama signed into law, contained SNAP cuts. It changed the way states were allowed to calculate a food stamp applicant’s expenses, ultimately making benefits less generous for hundreds of thousands of people.

After those changes, Judy Beals of Belleville, Wisconsin, saw her benefit drop from $120 per month to $16 ― the minimum benefit. The 67-year-old retiree said she’s been eating once a day and waits for her benefits to accumulate on her electronic benefits transfer card before she uses it to buy groceries.

“Every three months, it’s a worthwhile amount of money,” Beals said. Otherwise it barely gets her anything. 

It’s a common scenario for older Americans getting by on Social Security payments and little else. The Trump budget would eliminate the minimum benefit amount, which is set at $16 for people whose income and expenses would otherwise qualify them for just a few dollars.

Sonny Perdue, Trump’s agriculture secretary, has said the next farm bill would be the appropriate vehicle for more drastic SNAP changes, though he’s been vague about whether he supports the proposals in Trump’s budget. Perdue said earlier this month that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be compassionate, but that people shouldn’t make a “permanent lifestyle” out of receiving food stamps. “It ought to be a hand up and help out to do that,” he said.

House Agriculture Committee member Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the foremost defender of the program in the House of Representatives, says at this point he doesn’t know what changes Republicans are looking for, or even which Republicans might propose them.

“I have no idea what’s going on in the back of Republican leadership’s mind in terms of what they want to do to SNAP,” McGovern said. “I don’t know whether this is a setup for going after the program in a more substantial way than in previous years or what.”

That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable. Richard Nixon

The USDA has measured hunger in the U.S. using a “food insecurity” metric since 1995. Though it’s often mistaken for a direct estimate of hunger, the metric is actually much broader. It’s based on a survey in which people are asked a series of questions to determine whether their household “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.”

In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 12.7 percent of Americans were food insecure, down from a high of 14.9 percent in 2011. Five percent of households had “very low food security,” meaning that at some point in the year, someone in the household ate less than they would have liked due to lack of resources.

“Low food security” may sound like a bureaucratic euphemism for something that isn’t really hunger, but the term does capture real human suffering.

Marie Curewitz of Melrose, Florida, is someone who would fall in that category. Curewitz, 57, got laid off from her job as an office administrator in 2009 after a repetitive motion injury to her hand left her unable to do some of the work. She hasn’t been able to find a new job in the rural area where she lives since then.

“Because of my age, people look at me like I’m not quite capable,” Curewitz said in an interview. Though workers older than 55 had lower unemployment rates in the aftermath of the Great Recession than younger workers, when they did lose their jobs, they tended to stay unemployed longer.  

She applied for SNAP benefits in 2010 to supplement the few hundred dollars she earns each month doing household chores for elderly neighbors she finds through a local church. But then the $138 monthly benefits stopped last fall because the state of Florida wanted proof that she was working.

“They asked for a paycheck with a company logo on it,” Curewitz said. “The individual I dealt with [in the state government] couldn’t understand that the elderly people didn’t want to become employers.”

Florida and most other states have recently imposed a three-month limit on benefits for able-bodied adults who don’t have dependent family members and aren’t working at least 20 hours per week. The time limit ― Republicans call it a work requirement ― is a long-standing feature of federal law that most states had waived due to high unemployment rates. The Trump budget would make it more difficult for states to issue such waivers in the future.

When her SNAP benefits stopped, Curewitz skipped meals.

“There were times during that period when I had days where I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from,” she said. “It’s terrifying. It shoots your blood pressure through the roof.” 

Curewitz said she reapplied for benefits several months later and got them again, though she isn’t sure exactly what changed in the eyes of the state. The experience of losing her food budget certainly changed her, however.

“There’s no way to really express that feeling of hopelessness,” she said. “It left me with a real determination to never be that helpless again.”   

I had days where I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from. It’s terrifying. Marie Curewitz of Melrose, Florida

“Food insecurity” would be an understatement for the conditions in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1960s, where doctors found children suffering from malnutrition and chronic diarrhea, and covered with open sores. At the time, some counties had stopped distribution of excess commodity crops they were purchasing from farmers in favor of instituting a limited food stamp program. But back then, poor people had to actually purchase stamps from the government to participate ― meaning people who were so poor they couldn’t buy stamps were left to starve.

“We saw homes with children who are lucky to eat one meal a day ― and that one inadequate so far as vitamins, minerals, or protein is concerned,” said a 1967 report from a team of doctors that the Field Foundation, a New York nonprofit, dispatched to Mississippi.

“We saw children who don’t get to drink milk, don’t get to eat fruit, green vegetables, or meat. They live on starches ― grits, bread, Kool Aid,” the report said. “Their parents may be declared ineligible for commodities, ineligible for the food stamp program, even though they have literally nothing.”

Not everybody believed the doctors. Several members of Congress insisted there was no such thing as hunger ― only the moral failure of poor people. When a group called the Citizens’ Board of Inquiry published a book, Hunger USA, in 1968, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee commissioned a report of his own rebutting its findings.

“The basic problem is one of ignorance as to what constitutes a balanced diet,” Chairman Bob Poage (D-Texas) wrote in his report, according to a 1969 account from journalist Nick Kotz. Poage also claimed that “families on food relief often had television sets and nice automobiles” and drank whiskey instead of feeding their children.

Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) even asked FBI agents to investigate dozens of people who’d been interviewed for Hunger USA and the CBS News documentary, according to Kotz. Agents visited people’s houses, asked them questions and snooped in their cupboards.

“I don’t know why those being investigated got so excited,” said Whitten, who eventually came around to supporting food stamps in the 1970s.

The Field Foundation took a second look 10 years later, after the federal food stamp program had been greatly expanded. “In the Mississippi delta, in the coal fields of Appalachia and in coastal South Carolina — where visitors ten years ago could quickly see large numbers of stunted, apathetic children with swollen stomachs and the dull eyes and poorly healing wounds characteristic of malnutrition — such children are not to be seen in such numbers,” the researchers found. 

Hunger USA and the reports from the Field Foundation of New York contributed to a general consensus that food stamps greatly alleviated hunger. More recent data bears out the idea that malnutrition has decreased. The percentage of children ages 2 to 5 who were underweight ― a condition linked to malnutrition ― declined from 5.8 percent in 1971 to 3.4 percent in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Child hospitalizations from malnutrition-related diseases such as kwashiorkor are virtually unheard of.

“Evidence of severe malnutrition-related health problems has almost disappeared in this country,” Rebecca Blank, an economic adviser to Bill Clinton and an official with the Obama administration, wrote in her 1997 book It Takes A Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty. “The primary reason is Food Stamps.”

Stacy Dean, a policy expert with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, echoed Blank’s assessment in testimony before the House Agriculture Committee earlier this year.

“SNAP has largely eliminated severe hunger and malnutrition in the United States,” Dean said, citing USDA data showing the program reaches 80 percent of eligible households.  

Though it was conceived to fight hunger ― something it has done ― the program has also lifted millions of people out of poverty, as the food benefit frees up household income for other purposes. The program pushed 10 million people above the poverty line in 2012, according to a recent CBPP report.

But those gains could be at risk today, as too much food has become a bigger nutritional problem in the U.S. than too little food, potentially weakening support for SNAP. Fueled by an abundance of cheap, calorie-dense food, the percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese climbed from below 50 percent in the 1970s to about 70 percent as of 2014.

The prevalence of obesity has not been lost on nutrition policymakers or experts.

“Despite this massive increase in overweight and obesity among the poor, federal feeding programs still operate under their nearly half-century-old objective of increasing food consumption,” Douglas Besharov, a professor with the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, testified before the House Agriculture Committee in 2015.

“Few experts are willing to say that federal feeding programs are making the poor fat, although the evidence points in that direction,” Besharov said. “But no expert thinks they do very much to fight this growing public health problem.”

In 2015, USDA data revealed that food stamp recipients are more likely to be obese (40 percent) than poor people who qualify for benefits but don’t receive them (32 percent). The USDA reported last year that SNAP recipients purchase essentially the same foods as everyone else, which turns out to be a distressing amount of soda. Democrats and outside experts argue that poverty pushes people to purchase the cheapest calories possible, which results in poor nutrition and obesity ― a phenomenon Republicans also acknowledge. 

SNAP has largely eliminated severe hunger and malnutrition in the United States. Stacy Dean

One idea policymakers have long considered is a ban on using SNAP benefits to purchase certain types of food, especially unhealthy items. The idea is very popular, with 76 percent of Americans favoring candy restrictions, according to an April survey. Even two-thirds of Democrats liked the idea.

With more than 42 million beneficiaries, SNAP is massive ― the third-largest safety net program in the U.S. after Medicaid and the earned income tax credit. But food stamps are much more visible, as they are used in grocery stores ― often in front of other shoppers impatiently waiting in line ― so more Americans are familiar with the program.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said at a hearing late last year that “billions in taxpayer dollars are being spent on items like sweetened beverages and prepared desserts” and that the USDA’s data “begs the question of whether certain food or beverage items should be restricted as eligible food items in SNAP.”

Opponents of restricting SNAP purchases say doing so would be paternalistic and also impractical, making the government the arbiter of what foods count as healthy ― a question that is by no means settled among scientists. But the government already does decide which foods count as healthy, at least for people who qualify for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, which can be used only for baby formula and items the government has deemed nutritious. The USDA has said WIC has shown promise in potentially reducing obesity among children whose mothers are enrolled.

Instead of restricting benefits, Democrats typically favor giving food stamp beneficiaries a discount on healthier foods; the 2013 farm bill instructed the USDA to run a pilot project testing the idea and found it was effective for increasing intake of fruits and vegetables among SNAP recipients.

Conaway has already held almost two dozen hearings on farm and nutrition policy as he works toward the 2018 farm bill. He has not revealed what food stamp changes he might favor; his witness list over the past two years has included a lot of liberals who oppose cutting benefits.

Yet, it’s not clear whether his committee will be the final arbiter of SNAP funding. The House Budget Committee is rumored to be working on an overall spending outline for 2018 that is similar to the Trump budget, though its leaders haven’t said when they plan to move it forward.  

HuffPost asked Conaway last month whether he expected Republican leadership to slash spending on nutrition assistance. “I have no idea,” he said. “Those guys hold our fate in their hands.”