Food stamps are coupons redeemable in food at grocery stores. The government allots food stamps to low-income families to assure that minimal nutritional needs are met. Because they are redeemable in food, food stamps have circulated as money in ghetto areas. Although the food stamp program is a federal program, supervised by the United States Department of Agriculture, the process of identifying qualified families and issuing food stamps is left to the individual state governments.
The first food stamp program grew out of the contradictions of the Great Depression of the 1930s in which agricultural surpluses mocked the problems of rising unemployment, hunger, destitution, and falling farm incomes. The government’s initial response of destroying agricultural commodities seemed unreasonable in light of growing poverty and hunger. The first food stamp program began in 1939 and continued until 1943 when the wartime boom had solved the unemployment problem, and agricultural surpluses were no longer accumulating.
The food stamp program was revived in the 1960s, partly because President Kennedy, when campaigning in West Virginia, had observed schoolchildren taking home leftovers from school lunches. Various pilot programs were put into operation until Congress enacted the Food Stamp Program Act of 1964. Later in the 1960s and early 1970s Congress increased the benefits and eased the eligibility requirements. At first food stamp recipients had to pay for the stamps, but in the 1970s the stamps became free.
To qualify for food stamps families must fall below certain income levels, after allowances are made for housing costs, childcare, etc. The lower a family’s income, the more food stamps the family can receive.
In the 1970s and early 1980s food stamps became a sort of second-class currency in low-income neighborhoods. Although food stamps could legally be used only to purchase food, some merchants fudged and sold alcohol and other grocery store items for food stamps. On the streets food stamps are traded for cash, but at steep discounts. Individuals traded food stamps for cash and used the cash to purchase items that could not be purchased with food stamps.
Partly because of the fraudulent use of food stamps, the federal government during the Reagan years cut back on food stamp expenditures. The program remained in place, however, and the 1990s saw many states implement electronic benefit transfer programs that substituted a debit card for coupons. The use of the cards requires identification, rendering the transfer of food stamp benefits to parties other than the cardholder almost impossible. By 2002 all states are expected to have electronic benefit transfers.
Given that food items such as livestock, rice, corn, and many others have historically emerged as mediums of exchange, it should not be surprising that coupons redeemable in food should began to wear the aspect of money and circulate accordingly. Presumably, food stamp money will disappear in time because it involves an illegal use of food stamps, and the government will work to improve its regulation of the program.