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Food Stamps: An Economic Safety Net

By Hannah Emple on February 2, 2012
© New America Foundation

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut held a press conference today to discuss the important role that SNAP (Supplemental Nutritiona Assistance Program, or food stamps) plays in forming an economic safety net. Elise Gould from the Economic Policy Institute, Donna Cooper of the Center for American Progress, David Beckmann of Bread for the World, and Tara Marks of Just Harvest contributed their expertise on the economic, political, and social dimensions of SNAP.

DeLauro began her remarks by remembering the role Connecticut native Isabelle Kelly had in conceiving of and implementing the food stamp program in its early days in the 1960s. According to her obituary, in 1965 Kelly "was named as the first Director of the Department's Food Stamp Division, becoming the first woman the history of the Department to direct an action program." DeLauro quickly recounted the history of the program, noting that both Presidents Nixon and Reagan had shown support for its expansion begging the question of why it does not continue to enjoy bipartisan support. The Congresswoman highlighted the economic multiplier effect SNAP has - that is, dollars distributed to recipients are quickly dispersed into the local economy, supporting local business and stimulating growth.

Elise Gould echoed this assertion, characterizing SNAP as an "effective economic stimulus." Donna Cooper followed, explaining how the combination of rising food prices with stagnant wages results in a deep need for SNAP. Furthermore, she argued, cutting SNAP would hurt the economic recovery by destabilizing the grocery and farming sectors resulting in job loss in those industries, which will actually expand the program as new recipients are created by losing their jobs. Instead, Cooper suggested a two-pronged approach of growing both jobs and wages would be most effective and sustainable at cutting costs. David Beckmann, a Lutheran pastor, commended religious groups from diverse faiths for their charitable response to the Great Recession. However, as he explained, the food donations amassed by religious groups amount to only 7% of the food that SNAP is able to provide. This, he believes, is a powerful case for supporting the government safety net. Tara Marks, a former SNAP recipient and Co-Director of Just Harvest in Pittsburgh, spoke last and shared her experience before, during, and since receiving SNAP. As a single mother attending college, she put her child first, sometimes going days without eating (she was able to feed her infant with WIC food). She overcame her pride, and after a first unsuccessful visit to the benefit office, finally applied for and received the much needed SNAP dollars, with the support of her future employer Just Harvest. She praised the SNAP program, explaining how it had enabled her to be a part of the economy, to be productive, and as she put it, "to be a normal person in the grocery store" picking out exactly what she wanted for her family.

A few members of the press asked questions, focusing particularly on the recent rise in anti-SNAP rhetoric from politicians and perhaps most notably from Newt Gingrich. DeLauro and the other speakers emphasized that this rhetoric is damaging and ultimately counterproductive, as the SNAP program has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to be a flexible, timely response to economic problems, maintain a low fraud rate, and support families in times of need. See Rachel Black's blog post from last week and Justin King's post from the week prior for more on what we've been saying about SNAP lately. 

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