The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is the nation’s most important food assistance programs for low-income Americans, and one of its most important anti-poverty measures. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, SNAP supplemented the food purchasing power of some 40 million Americans, at a cost of about $60 billion a year. Demand for SNAP, and program spending, ballooned with the pandemic’s economic dislocations, and the program played a key role in keeping rates of food insecurity and poverty from worsening.
SNAP’s centrality to the nation’s social welfare safety net is unintentional. In fact, the original food stamp program piloted during the Great Depression was designed to enable low-income households to “purchase” surplus agricultural commodities that otherwise might have gone to waste, which in turn provided needed income to food retailers, processors and farmers. Farm surpluses dried up with the onset of World War II, and the food stamp program was discontinued.