"The food stamp program will be restored to its original purpose," President Reagan promised Congress and the country in his budget speech, "to assist those without resources to purchase sufficient nutritional food."
Mr. Reagan said he will trim food stamp spending next year from $12.4 billion to $10.6 billion "by removing from eligibility those who are not in real need or who are abusing the program."
The proposed cut reflects the philosophy spelled out by the President in his Feb. 18 budget speech: "The taxing power of government must be used to provide revenues for legitimate government purposes. It must not be used to regulate the economy or bring about social change."
The White House view is that the food stamp program is a prime example of government taking a costly left turn. Set up in 1964 to provide the poor with more nutritional food, the program instead became "an income transfer mechanism, " according to Reagan advisers.
Food stamps became one more device to transfer income from one segment of society to another, the advisers say, instead of remaining "limited to those functions which are the proper province of government."
The food stamp program's leading champion in the House of Representatives, Rep. Frederick Richmond (D) of New York, takes a different View. Admitting problems existed in the past, the Brooklyn congressman says that "we have distilled this program over the last six years into an extremely sensitive and efficient operation."
Cutting back on food stamps will not only hurt the poor, he explains, but will hurt the economy as a whole. He feels any reduction in nutritional standards will "make children less able to learn and their parents less able to get or keep jobs."
Carolyn Chaney, staff director of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition headed by Mr. Richmond, adds that despite Reagan promises, "a lot of the truly needy are going to be hurt by any food stamp cutback." She explains that the program, which served 3 million in 1969, "ballooned" to serve 22 million today only because "it directly reflects the economy." She expects House and Senate hearings on food stamps beginning March 17 will bring out this fact.
Critics charge that the program is being abused by students, strikers, and others with no need for food stamps. But Ms. Chaney points out that only 47,000 students and 25,000 strikers have qualified for food stamps this year -- and in each case must satisfy stringent requirements.
Ms. Chaney says that instead of being bloated by abuse, the program has grown because 1 million more people qualify for stamps with each 1 percent increase in inflation. In addition, every 1 percent increase in the consumer price index pushes food stamp costs up another $100 million.
Yet even with massive government expenditure, individual food stamp recipients find it hard to balance their own budgets. The maximum benefit for a family of four with no net income is now $233 a month in free food stamps. As income goes up, benefits drop so that a family of four earning $500 a month qualifies for $83 in stamps. And no household qualifies if it has more than $1, 750 a month in financial resources.
More than 85 percent of households receiving food stamps have incomes of $6, 000 or less, with 52 percent earning less than $3,600. Only 0.5 percent of households in the program earn more than $12,000.
Racially, recipients are 49 percent white, 29 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 0.9 percent American Indian, 11.5 percent other or unknown.
Eight percent of the recipients are elderly, with 53 percent aged under 17.
One key congressional staffer, however, feels that such figures may have little influence on Congress. "the mood of Congress, even of the House," says House Agriculture Committee analyst Gene Moos, "is one of cooperating with the President as much as it can on budget cuts."
Don Paarlberg, a leading agricultural economist who helped draft Reagan administration farm policies, hopes there will be full cooperation.
"I think the food stamp program is a good one basically in its concept and in that it does serve a useful purpose," Dr. Paarlberg explains, "but it has grown far beyond need." He says support for the program has been undermined by abuses, waste, and "the fact that it deprives people of the felt need for self-reliance."
He feels that "about half of the money that goes out for food stamps winds up being spent for something other than food, spent for clothing, gas, rent, etc." Paarlberg argues that "it has not been possible to document that diets of people are significantly improved by food stamps."
American Farm Bureau spokesman Eugene Malone would be equally pleased to see "waste, duplication, and duplicity" cut out of the food stamp program. He says that farmers "find it hard to understand or justify that a family of four can be making $14,000 a year and still be ge tting food stamps."