My new book, Why SNAP Works: A Political History—and Defense—of the Food Stamp Program, makes a strong case for why Americans should appreciate the genius of and continue to support the nation’s most important anti-hunger effort: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. What started in the Great Depression as an experimental approach to using up surplus agricultural commodities and revived in the early 1960s as a modest effort to address pockets of acute need, is today the nation’s foundational food assistance program, and an essential anti-poverty tool. Some 40 million Americans rely on SNAP to bolster their food budgets, and the program proved pivotal to staving off widespread deprivation during the depths of the pandemic. That the modern program marks a major milestone next August – 60 years since passage of the Food Stamp Act of 1964 – is likely to go little noticed. But we all should take a moment to celebrate a uniquely American success story.
The enduring genius of SNAP is how it leverages the retail food marketplace, from Walmart to the local bodega, to enable low-income households to better feed themselves. SNAP enrollees use the funds transferred to their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards to shop at their favorite food markets, just like any other consumer. No colored coupons that expose SNAP families to public shame. No standing in line on a public sidewalk for a box of surplus food. And, a few restrictions aside, SNAP enrollees get the same ability to choose that most Americans take for granted.
Yes, SNAP could be better, and is the subject of endless political debates over its rules and benefits structure, most recently during this past spring’s standoff over the so-called debt ceiling. But amidst those squabbles remains a fundament reality: SNAP works. Without it, tens of millions of Americans would be far worse off. And if that sounds like faint praise, so be it. Short of a systemic solution to poverty—the root cause of food insecurity—and in a land of so much food, often bordering on the obscene, SNAP at least ensures that all Americans get a better chance at a decent diet, a minimum element for a decent life, without sacrificing all personal autonomy and pride. That’s no small achievement.
Christopher Bosso is Professor of Public Policy and Politics in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, Boston. His latest book, Why SNAP Works A Political History—and Defense—of the Food Stamp Program, is the first book to tell the whole story of SNAP and to explain why all Americans should support it.