THE food-stamp program isn't working. Many of the 20.1 million Americans who receive food stamps find themselves hungry by the third or fourth week of the month. In part, the hunger problem persists because the food-stamp program is based on an antiquated emergency food plan, a plan that the federal government itself deemed nutritionally inadequate. Furthermore, Congress has perpetuated the problem by preventing the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that oversees the food-stamp program, from increasing benefit levels to reflect the realistic needs of the poor. In fact, Congress has historically required that program costs be held steady, effectively ensuring that the poor remain hungry and ill-fed. The USDA is now at work analyzing data to set food-stamp benefit levels for the next 10 years, but the agency cannot bring benefits into s tep with reality without congressional authorization.
The food-stamp program has never adequately nourished its recipients. Food-stamp benefits are calculated on the basis of the Thrifty Food Plan, a market basket listing amounts and kinds of foods that theoretically meet the minimal nutritional needs of low-income families. The problem is that the plan evolved from a 1933 USDA report, which outlined four food plans: three adequate diets for wealthy, middle-income, and low-income Americans, and a fourth emergency plan that was not designed to support life for extended periods of time.
In the 1960s, the government conducted a consumption survey using the same approach as was used in the 1933 USDA report and again created three plans for three income groups. But when it came to deciding food-stamp benefit levels, the government created the Economy Food Plan (later renamed the Thrifty Food Plan), which set benefits at 20 to 25 percent below the average food expenditures of the low-income group. From the beginning, the Economy Food Plan was insufficient. The focus was on cost, not nutrit ional adequacy. The USDA actually acknowledged that the plan was "essentially for emergency use."
In 1971, nine food-stamp households in New York filed a lawsuit against the government, arguing that the program was nutritionally inadequate. According to their petition, the families received an average of 32 percent less than required to meet their nutritional needs. Four years later, the US Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed.
AS a result of the lawsuit, the USDA revised the program and renamed it the Thrifty Food Plan, but the costs were capped at the previous level. The USDA achieved this goal by using creative menu planning: It changed the content of the food basket by cutting back on high-cost foods like meat and milk and replacing them with cheaper foods like dry beans and bread.
When the USDA changes the market basket this way, it is, in effect, changing the shopping lists of families on food stamps without telling them. Families on food stamps may read USDA brochures, such as "Enjoy Legumes" or " Convenience Foods Save Time But Can Cost More," but they won't find a brochure or notice explaining that they can't buy as much ground beef or chicken as they did the year before.
In 1983, the USDA again revised the shopping list - and again filled the market basket with low-cost foods. This time, however, the USDA had no choice: The Food Stamp Act of 1977 actually stated that the program costs could not exceed the costs of the 1975 plan (adjusted for inflation).
The USDA is now crunching the numbers to make adjustments in the Thrifty Food Plan for its 1993 update. Congress needs to correct the decades-old disgrace of the food-stamp program by revising the Food Stamp Act of 1977 and directing the USDA to make necessary increases in food-stamp benefit levels.
If lawmakers fail to act, the USDA again will be forced to artificially adjust the market basket to hold costs down, at the ultimate expense of the health and nutrition of low-income Americans.