Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States in the early months of 2020, national media outlets have featured photos of lines of cars outside food banks in cities across the country. Such images serve as a shocking reminder that, yes, hunger exists in America. In this piece, I highlight how drastic changes in American food programs in the 1970s shaped contemporary food welfare policies. Enacting a politics of austerity, presidents and politicians began to place limits around food welfare spending within government, opening the door for a more far-reaching politics of disentitlement in the 1980s. These changes created lasting legacies that impact our relationship to hunger in America today, including normalizing the reliance of millions of Americans on charitable food assistance to feed their families.

During the 1970s, the food stamp program, providing low-income families with coupons to purchase food at grocery stores, grew at a meteoric rate. The program served 4 million people in 1970, but by 1980, the number had grown to 21 million beneficiaries. A few key legislative changes created the conditions for this growth. In 1974, the food stamp program went national, with a government requirement that it operated in every county. Additionally, that same year Congress enacted entitlement budgeting for food stamps, which meant that there was no spending cap on the program. Instead, Congress guaranteed that anyone in the country who could meet the program’s eligibility criteria would receive benefits, regardless of how much this would cost from federal coffers. These expansionary measures were due in part to the “blue wave” of progressive politicians elected to Congress following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974. In 1977, Congress removed the purchase requirement for all recipients. Up to this point, most households had to pay a part of their income to access food stamps. The end of the purchase requirement, coupled with a truly national program and entitlement budgeting, meant that millions more Americans received assistance to put groceries on the table each month.

However, the 1970s also saw fissures emerge in the understanding of the nature and extent of state responsibility for relief from hunger. Behind a veneer of universality, a burgeoning politics of austerity claimed that food welfare could never meet the needs of all who were hungry because the nation could not afford it. The expansion of the food stamp program during the 1970s lent legitimacy to these claims. It made food stamps far more expensive, a feature that did not go unnoticed by political conservatives.

In early 1975, Governor Ronald Reagan wrote to President Gerald Ford and noted that, in regard to welfare programs, “the major problem of today lies in the area of food stamps.” President Ford’s – and later Jimmy Carter’s – concern with ballooning food stamp costs led both presidents to implement austerity measures in the name of balancing the budget. Working with Congress, both Presidents sought to tighten eligibility rules and reinstitute budget caps, changes that would slow the rate of program growth. These concerns won out, and Congress reinstated a budget cap on food stamps in 1977. Instead of funding food stamps to meet changing levels of need, the spending cap placed boundaries around public responsibility. Food stamp spending was reframed as a luxury in a moment of national belt-tightening.

Ronald Reagan’s election to the Presidency in 1980 set the stage for a further transformation in food politics. The Reagan administration worked to change the meaning of need and worthiness, shifting the question from how to provide public food aid to asking whether it was needed at all. When Reagan and a Republican controlled Congress enacted the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) of 1981, it accomplished far more than limiting expenditures. OBRA disentitled food welfare recipients from benefits that many relied on to purchase enough food to eat each month.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

OBRA did not seek to cut program spending to a level deemed “affordable,” but instead undermined the legitimacy of a right to food assistance. It focused on the responsibilities of citizens to do everything in their power to avoid welfare, while minimizing their rights to public aid, and it did so by first limiting eligibility for food stamps, and second, in shrinking relative benefit levels.

In terms of the eligibility of people to procure food stamps, new criteria introduced by OBRA pushed millions of formerly eligible food welfare beneficiaries off the rolls. The most straightforward option was to lower the income ceiling on eligibility, which policymakers predicted would both knock 400,000 households from the program and save the government $275 million. OBRA categorically excluded whole classes of individuals from food stamps, including striking workers if they had not been eligible prior to industrial action. All told, shifting rules meant an estimated 1 million participants – out of 20 million total – were no longer eligible for food stamps. And for those who did remain eligible, many saw absolute benefit reductions.

In addition to limiting eligibility, an entitlement to food receded further with the delinking of benefit levels from inflation. Until 1981, food stamp benefits were “uprated” every six months. This meant that food stamps values were adjusted to match changes in inflation twice per year. If food costs rose 5% due to inflation, food stamp recipients would receive 5% more in benefits to match this rising cost. However, in an effort to create savings, a provision of OBRA stretched the period between inflation indexing, allowing for an uprating of food stamps only every 15 months. As a consequence, when food prices rose due to inflation, coupon values would not. As food prices rose during the early 1980s, food stamp purchasing power declined and people reliant on stamps were left with fewer benefits. Instead of adequately funded food assistance from the state, many poor Americans turned to a growing network of food banks to make ends meet.

The legacies of these transformations in food welfare politics remain to this day. This spring, when the US Department of Agriculture sought to provide subsidies to farmers and food banks, Democratic politician Beto O’Rourke, among others, called out the USDA for focusing on the voluntary sector instead of increasing funding for the food stamp program. In addition, the Trump administration – never shy to cut funding to America’s most important and popular social programs – has repeatedly pushed for expanding voluntary and philanthropic food assistance while chipping away at state welfare. Remember Trump’s plan to replace food stamps with food boxes? Recent attempts to weaken food stamps are just one more example of ongoing disentitlement and the states’ withdrawal from a commitment to end hunger. The embrace of a politics of disentitlement in food welfare means that a safety net – in particular one that promises freedom from want – remains unrealized. The phrase “paradox of plenty” has long described hunger in the U.S. But this is not a paradox. It is a political choice.

About the Author

Caitlin Rathe

Caitlin Rathe received a PhD in History from the University of California Santa Barbara in 2019. Her dissertation, "Food Assistance Policies and the Transformation of the Public/Private Welfare State in the United States, 1964-1984," explores the shifting politics of hunger, the welfare state, and the boundary between public and private assistance. Currently an administrator at Nottingham Trent University, Caitlin is also a producer and researcher on the podcast LBJ and the Great Society as well as the forthcoming PRX series "Nixon at War."

» More articles by Caitlin Rathe

  1. Excellent piece, Caitlin – and so timely. History keeps repeating itself – right up to the present. Liam mentioned some studies he’d seen that found when food stamps were plentiful, church attendance declined. When they were hard to get, church attendance increased. I know it’s not that simple, but interesting to think about in the larger context.

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