While conservatives love to beat up on the SNAP program, there’s an awkward little fact that might horrify them
Food stamps became part of American life 50 years ago this Sunday when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act into law on Aug. 31, 1964. The program has been a whipping boy almost ever since, especially from conservatives who call the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the contemporary name for food stamps) a costly and demoralizing example of government overreach.
But SNAP was not an idea first created by liberal do-gooders of the 1960s. Food stamps emerged three decades earlier with active participation of businessmen, the heroes of the exact group of people who want to see the program dissolved today.
The early Great Depression was marked by a “paradox of poverty amidst plenty.” Massive crop surpluses led to low prices for farmers. At first, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration tried paying farmers to plow under surplus crops and kill livestock. In theory, decreasing the supply would raise farm prices incentivizing farmers to get their crops to market. But the plan was met with outrage from hungry citizens who said they could have put the destroyed “surplus” food to good use.
After this failed start, Roosevelt tried another plan. Government purchased excess crops at a set price and distributed them at little or no cost to poor Americans. But this system was also met with criticism, this time from the sellers of food goods. Wholesalers and retailers were upset that government distribution bypassed “the regular commercial system,” undercutting their profits.
The Roosevelt administration started the first pilot food stamp program in 1939 to integrate businesses in getting food to the hungry. However, there were concerns about the food stamp program’s success. A newsmagazine at the time reported, “there was no difficulty in selling the idea to grocers,” but some feared that the “real beneficiaries” wouldn’t cooperate. Unlike the image conjured up today of the poor clamoring for government aid, in the time of perhaps the greatest need in the past century, businesses were more excited about the federal assistance than the hungry individuals who were to benefit.