Too Poor for Food Stamps

By Staff

Vol. 2, No. 4, 1980, pp. 3-4

Almost eight million poor Americans did not have ample food during this holiday season because of barriers and restrictions in the federal food stamp program. In a study, entitled "Too Poor for Food Stamps", the Southern Regional Council found that despite the changes in the federal law in 1977 giving the poor greater access to food stamps, about 3 1 percent of all the poor throughout the country still do not receive stamps. In the South, the figure is closer to 40 percent.

"Almost a majority of the poor who aren't receiving food stamps live in the South," says Steve Suitts, SRC executive director. "In the South more than anywhere else in the nation, the risks of hunger and malnutrition are daily facts of life for many poor families."

The SRC report shows, however, that the 1977 changes in the food stamp law have helped to enlarge the number of poor recipients. Before the changes were implemented, only 49 percent of all poor Southerners received food stamps. Now more than 60 percent are receiving stamps.

The major change in the program passed by Congress in late 1977 and implemented in the beginning of 1979 was the end of the "purchase requirement" - whereby recipients had to pay money to receive stamps. Other revisions not implemented yet include reducing administrative barriers and physical barriers such as the location of food stamp offices and the days and times in which stamps are issued.

Congressional committees in Washington considered the renewal of the food stamp program in December. Judy Currie, SRC staff member, says that Congress should realize that "the intent of the Food Stamp Act of 1977 - to serve those poor people who were being denied food by unnecessary barriers - is being achieved. Yet the program has not accomplished its goal of making a minimum diet accessible to all needy Americans."

Cutting federal expenditures is often cited as the reason for Congressional opposition to changes that increase the cost of the food stamp program, which in 1980 may reach $8 billion. Yet, the SRC report


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notes that such an expense to provide the poor with a minimum diet "should not deter us from understanding its importance compared to the goal of more nuclear submarines or more government buildings." Noting that only about one percent of the entire federal budget is spent on the food stamp program, Suitts. says that the effects of good nutrition can save the nation billions of dollars now lost from reduced productivity and medical costs.

By studying available information the report estimates that the average annual income of families joining the food stamp program recently is roughly between $3,500 $5,000. Most of the new participants in the South are not welfare recipients. Only one in 20 of the new participants in the South already received public assistance.

"Our study shows that food stamps, which may well mean survival for many, are now being opened to the working poor, families whose fathers are structurally unemployed, and middleaged workers too young for Social Security but too old to obtain decent jobs," Suitts stated. Of the approximate 1.2 million people in the South who came onto the food stamp program for the first time in 1979, more than 1.0 million were the working poor and those not receiving public assistance.

"With the new changes in the food stamp program the percentage of participating Southerners who are public assistance households dropped by almost five percent," says Currie. Approximately 23 percent of all Southerners in the food stamp program are receiving welfare payments (not including Social Security recipients), while outside the South almost 62 percent are on the welfare roles. (See the chart).

Other findings in the report show that the new food stamp recipients in the South come from largely rural areas and from those states where past participation has been low. The new participants are more likely to be elderly and from small families than those already receiving stamps.

Concluding that changes in the way the food stamp program is administered "give poor people a real chance to have an adequate die.t," the report recommends that the ceiling on expenditures in the food stamp program be removed and that other administrative and physical barriers be reduced by further changes. The report also suggests that food stamp recipients be allowed to receive larger deductions for medical expenses so that parents "will not be forced to choose between food and health care for their children."

A copy of the report "Too Poor for Food Stamps" can be obtained for $3.00 by writing to the Southern Regional Council, 75 Marietta Street, Atlanta, Georgia 30303.