"Too Poor to Eat": A Socio-Political History of Food Stamps in the United States, 1964-1996
Drane, Lindsay Nicole Bianca
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Signed on August 31, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Food Stamp Act intended to deal with farmer surplus and provide a more nutritious diet for all Americans. Run by the United States Department of Agriculture, and operated as an agriculture program, food stamps remained separated from Johnson’s War on Poverty legislation. As the politics of the program played out, food stamps became a battleground where politicians, the public, and the media debated whether food access was a right of privilege of all citizens. This dissertation explores the interplay between policy formation and implementation and public organizing around food stamps. In the mid-1960s, it was clear that many Americans lived in starvation and experienced malnutrition. I analyze how anti-hunger activists and grassroots and private organizations helped define food stamp policy by forcing the expansion of more liberal policies like nationalized eligibility standards and the elimination of the purchase requirement. I examine the formation of gendered and racialized stereotypes around work and food. Ideas about gender and race in America informed the pervasive negative stereotypes of food stamp recipients. Opponents of the FSP fought to narrow the parameters of citizenship by proposing legislation to privatize food aid or shift the agriculture program to welfare status. The resulting policies — like strict workfare requirements — punished those people trapped in a cycle of poverty that stemmed not from their individual behavior, but from systematic economic, political, and social inequalities. Despite poor people identifying themselves as workers, they did so in ways that were on the perimeter of traditional American conceptions of work. By claiming their right to eat through federal food aid and pushing the boundaries of ideas about what it meant to work, they tested the limits of citizenship. Receiving food stamps symbolically signaled their worth, autonomy, privacy, and their rights and citizenship status in American society in more tangible ways than previous federal food programs. How they lived, provided for themselves and their families, and what they ate became the center of debates around whether food for survival was a right or a privilege, a debate that still matters today.