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Nuts and Bolts: The Food Stamps Program, or SNAP

By Ed O'Keefe

Amid the nation's economic troubles, a record 31.5 million Americans used food stamps in September, a 17 percent increase versus a year ago and a new record. The new levels approach the all-time national high set in 1994, when 10.5 percent of Americans were using the program, according to Reuters.

Nuts and Bolts

Whenever The Eye hears about the increased use of a government program, he knows this means yet another government agency potentially working overtime to meet increased demand. Thus, the latest Nuts and Bolts report focuses on the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Services office, responsible for doling out food stamps.

But don't call them Food Stamps anymore!

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the new name for the program, which has been around in one form or another since the Great Depression.

"Food Stamps unfortunately had taken on some stigma or association with a welfare program. It's not a welfare program, never has been," says Jean Daniel, a USDA spokeswoman. "We don't have stamps anymore, or coupons. All of the benefits are transmitted electronically [onto a debit card-like device]. It really was intended to reflect the more modern nature of the program."

FNS accounts for two-thirds of USDA's budget, but less than 1 percent of its staff, Daniel says, noting that it has adequate resources right now to administer the program. Most of the strain is on state governments since eligible American citizens and some immigrants apply for benefits at the state level. FNS then distributes the funds and provides oversight of the program.

"The program is still not reaching about a third of those eligible," suggests Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center, who nonetheless applauds FNS' coordination with the state governments. Still, "more efforts are going to be needed from USDA, the states and community-based programs to make sure that people who need the program get it,” she says.

Vollinger's group is part of a coalition urging Congress to provide $12 billion in additional funds to the SNAP program and state governments in the next economic stimulus package. The funds are needed, they say to help states process the growing number of requests and to ensure SNAP benefits meet the needs of recipients. Plus, Vollinger notes, most economists support increased funding for SNAP since money provided to beneficiaries goes directly to grocery stores, thus stimulating the economy.

It's no surprise to see folks suggesting that a Federal agency needs more money, but considering the nation's current economic conditions and the fact that it has coordinated so well with its state government counterparts, it seems FNS may need all the additional help it can get. The comments section awaits your thoughts on this issue.

By Ed O'Keefe  | December 5, 2008; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  Nuts and Bolts  
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