USDA Says Food Stamps Brought Down Poverty Rate

By: Justin Chan

As President Barack Obama and his administration attempt to quell the fear over the recent recession, the public can find solace in knowing that those who have been hit particularly hard by the economic crisis have benefitted somewhat in the past few years.

According to the New York Times, the United States Department of Agriculture released a new study that claims that food stamps have significantly reduced the country's poverty rate during the recession. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which administers the food stamps, reportedly lowered the poverty rate by 8 percent in 2009, the latest year noted in the study.

Although the food stamp program serves more than 46 million people and is considered to be one of the largest efforts against poverty, its history dates back to the early 1900s, when unemployment became rampant. In order to combat the lack of consumption and the surplus of production, the Food Surplus Commodities Corporation was formed in 1935. The agency was tasked with distributing commodities and encouraging domestic consumption, but the Secretary of Agriculture acknowledged the flaws in the program four years later. By then, the government decided to experiment with a food stamp program, which initially served residents in Rochester, New York. Within another four years, the program expanded tremendously and served approximately 4 million people.

The program reached its height in 1964, when the government passed the Food Stamp Act. Under this legislation, low income households were allowed to receive a larger share of the country's food output. Each household was also provided with a coupon that would allow it to purchase food from retail food stores that were involved in the program. Several amendments were made in 1971, as more and more people applied for assistance. Additional legislative acts that followed elucidated the rules of eligibility, rules of payment and funding to state agencies.

The impact of SNAP has been far-reaching. The Department of Agriculture's website points out that enrollment in food stamp programs increased by 45 percent from January of 2009 to January of this year. The number, however, belies the economic progress that has taken place. Enrollment decreased slightly from December of last year to this past January, which suggests that even the country's poorest families may be finding some light at the end of the road.

While the food stamp program has been generally beneficial to poverty-stricken families, it has also had its fair share of controversies. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, decided to rebrand food stamps after many Americans who received them felt there was a certain sense of humiliation attached to them. In New York, many local beneficiaries of the city's food stamp program complained earlier this year of the fingerprinting required to receive food stamps. While the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, argued that the process limits fraud, others contended that it stigmatized those who truly needed food stamps.

Check out the gallery below of how food stamps have changed over the years...