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Ashlie D. Stevens

How did hunger become a partisan issue?

Since Mike Johnson’s recent ascent to House speaker, food insecurity advocates have been sounding the alarm. As Politico reported last week, Johnson is a proponent of more hard-line efforts to overhaul America’s largest anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which currently serves over 40 million people. 

In 2018, per the publication, he referred to SNAP as “our nation’s most broken and bloated welfare program.” 

However, this stance isn’t new among conservatives, who are in a position — heading towards the year-end expiration of the Farm Bill, which is the legislation that authorizes SNAP — from which they could further gut the already fragile program. While one could argue that the creation of SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, wasn’t an inherently partisan move, the way that it has become one in the ensuing decades paints an interesting picture of just how actively addressing hunger in this country has become such a hot-button political issue. 

The groundwork for SNAP was actually laid during the Great Depression. In 1933, crop prices were plummeting and the excess supply burdened American farms. As part of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation was formed, which bought commodities at a discount and distributed them to hunger relief agencies. To streamline this continued effort, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace established the Food Stamp Program in 1939 as part of the New Deal program under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

This initiative allowed low-income individuals to buy food stamps and receive bonus stamps for surplus foods. Orange stamps were used to purchase a range of items, excluding alcohol, tobacco and restaurant meals. For every $1 in orange stamps bought, participants received $0.50 in blue stamps, which could be used for specific surplus groceries like beans, flour and vegetables. That iteration of the program officially ended in 1943 during the economic boom that followed World War II. 

A little under two decades later, President John F. Kennedy signed the first Executive Order of his presidency in order to begin piloting the program again. Chloe and Alderson Muncy of Paynesville, West Virginia, were the first food stamp recipients in May 1961. The couple was ceremoniously driven to the county seat where they purchased $95 in food stamps for their 15-person household. In the first food stamp transaction, they bought a can of pork and beans at Henderson's Supermarket. 

“'It made all the difference,” Chloe Muncy said six years later, according to the USDA. “There wasn't any school lunch then in the one room schools that some of the kids went to. And buying lunch to send off nine of those kids to school every day — we couldn't have done it without the stamps.”

By January 1964, the pilot programs had expanded into 22 states with 380,000 participants. A few months later, on August 31, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964. “It is one of many sensible and needed steps we have taken to apply the power of America's new abundance to the task of building a better life for every American,” Johnson said at the time. “As a permanent program, the food stamp plan will be one of our most valuable weapons for the war on poverty.”

However, it was during the controversial War on Poverty that conservatives really began to focus their attention on food stamps as a political instrument that needed to be either managed or mitigated. Many argued that the program, as well as associated welfare initiatives, would discourage self-reliance and personal responsibility and breed a generation of Americans who were always seeking a handout. This nasty stereotype about people in poverty, especially people of color, was infamously cemented into our nation’s broader consciousness during Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign with his popularization of the phrase “welfare queen.” 

"There's a woman in Chicago,” he said during a campaign speech. “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.” 

Since then, food insecurity advocates have been attempting to undo the tremendous amount of damage done by that rhetoric. Meanwhile, catalyzed by Reagan’s unflattering stereotype — and perhaps their already-held beliefs that most welfare recipients are fraudulent and undeserving, rather than fellow citizens genuinely in need of government assistance — generations of conservative politicians have attempted to decrease the program’s reach. 

In the 1990s, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was a vocal critic of the welfare system, including SNAP, referring to it as a “culture of poverty.” This attitude was heavily reflected in the Trump administration’s plans to tighten eligibility for SNAP (which were ultimately largely unfulfilled), as well as Republicans’ more successful efforts this year, which come at a critical time for hunger in the United States. 

As Salon Food reported in March, food insecurity experts predicted that the country was "racing toward a looming 'hunger cliff,'" as pandemic-era emergency SNAP benefits were set to expire this year — and they were right. But just as millions of Americans were yet again plunged into food insecurity, things got worse. President Joe Biden signed the debt ceiling and budget cuts package that passed the Senate in early June; to push the bill through and avoid a default crisis, one of Biden’s concessions was to make some of the most consequential changes to SNAP in decades. 

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had long wanted to expand the age bracket for people who must meet work requirements to participate in the program, and thanks to the threat of the default crisis, he got his wish. Under the new guidelines, the age of recipients required to work was raised from 50 to 55 and, according to The Center for Public Integrity, makes it harder for states to waive work rules in areas with high unemployment. 

In an emailed statement at the time, Eric Mitchell, the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, said that the work requirements for which Republicans pushed are "punitive and ineffective." 

"They perpetuate the myth that people on economic assistance programs choose not to work when the evidence clearly shows otherwise, and by taking vital support away from SNAP participants, they actually make it harder to secure and maintain employment," he said. 

While McCarthy may be out, his replacement isn’t any better for hungry Americans, as Johnson’s conservative allies are pushing him towards significant spending cuts and new restrictions on SNAP. Johnson has told lawmakers he wants to put the House version of the new farm bill next month, which will provide insight into what exactly those will look like.

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