Explain Food Stamps to a limey - some questions....

Now I have heard the phrase “food stamps” many times on here and in US fiction etc and have never given the matter any thought. Until now. So I have a few questions about these food stamps. Could you clarify:

Firstly I am assuming that food stamps are a state benefit to poor people to allow them to buy groceries. This is right or not?

If I’m on the right lines…How poor do you have to be to get them – and then how many do you get?

Are all poor people eligible or just certain groups eg the sick and those with kids?

Who provides them – The federal govt, state, county, city etc.

Are the rates of provision uniform nation-wide.

If not where is better than where?

Although they are called food stamps can other things be bought with them eg clothes? What about things like alcohol and ciggies?

Can you spend them anywhere? If not are the places you can spend them more expensive than normal?

Are they transferable?

Why don’t they just give the recipient the cash?

Isn’t it a bit inefficient – it must take a fair few staff to administer this?

If you get this benefit will you also get other things like help with your housing and fuel costs?

Will you also get some actual money?

Anything else I should know?



The “food stamp” program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The stamps used to be chits that looked like currency. Now, many states have gone to a card similar to a debit or credit card.

Some details about the program vary by state. For example, someone in California will have to follow different rules than someone in New York.

Food stamps may only be used to purchase food items. One of the reasons the card became so popular was because people would cash in food stamps by buying low-priced items and using the change to buy other things like cigarettes and alcohol. However, many people also receive cash assistance, which may be used to buy clothes and so forth.

There are other programs for housing and fuel costs. The Department of Housing and Urban Development administers the Section 8 housing-voucher program. Many energy companies have special assistance for those costs.

This site from the USDA gives a pretty good idea about the program, eligibility rules, and so forth and will answer more of your questions.


No, no, and no.


See the alcohol and ciggies answer above.

The poor get something called the .Earned Income Cedit, on their annual federal tax form, which grants money for the taxpayer and each dependent.

Thanks for that. Why not just give them the dosh?

We tried something similar here with asylum seekers - we gave them vouchers for food and other shop-bought stuff (clothes, toiletries etc).

However the only shops that could be bothered to accept them were small independent ones that cost a lot more than the national supermarkets and a load more than the local market.

Does that happen?

We also had a thriving black market in the vouchers.

We gave it up and give them dosh know.

What is “dosh”?

Some thoughts on the subject.

When I was a child growing up in the USA in a Goverment housing project in the 70’s we, (my mother & 4 kids), were on welfare. My mother use to get free food from the goverment about once a month along with a welfare check. The food was always basic in plain packaging. Peanut butter came in a large tin can, cheeze in cardboard boxes. Sometime in the late 70’s(?) they switched to food stamps. You could go to the local store with a $10 food stamp buy say $1 worth of food and receive the balance in cash.

The housing was administered by the local goverment but built by the Federal Goverment. The food stamps & welfare were a Fed gov program but administered by the state.

As a kid I never saw my mother smoke or drink. We always had plenty of food, a decent apartment, and clothes. My mother drove various cars that were pretty old and banged up but I sure we always had one. Proably 90% of the families in the neighborhood were likewise.

The other 10% got the same benefits and chose diffrent ways to live.

Clarification on the “groceries” part of the question: “Food” might be a better word to describe what’s an eligible. “Groceries”, to me anyway, conjures up an image of staple food products.

In Illinois, it seems that just about anything edible or drinkable (other that alcohol) is covered. So a purchase consisting solely of Chee-tos, Pepsi and Kit-Kat bars at the 7-11 is fine.

(Note: I haven’t actually reviewed Illinois of Federal law on this. I’m basing this on what I often see at the local White Hen or 7-11).

Dosh is English slang for cash.

No, the big chain food stores accept them. (It may be required.)

As for the $$ alternative, I agree with the “beer and cigarettes” answer already given. The idea is to get food in the house, especially for the kids (if there are any). Sometimes, people in a bad economic situation because they have addictions, or tend to make poor choices in life. If they get cash, Dad may gamble, smoke, inject or drink the money away (or otherwise spend it on himself) before it can be used to buy food.

Yes, there used to be a black market for the coupons. The card system prevents some of that, but I’m sure it still exists in some form.

Some stores did refuse to accept food stamps, but they soon figured out how much business they were turning away. Now, the food card is almost universally accepted.

Hi. Lots of basic info on Food Stamps and other government programs and issues on hunger in America in general can be found at this advocacy group I used to work for: http://www.frac.org They are very well respected as fair and accurate. (Send them a donation! :wink: )

You can not transfer Food Stamps, but back when they were actually “stamps” (i.e., paper coupons) they were fairly easy to pass around. Now, all states (I believe) use an electronic benefit transfer card (EBT) that looks and works kinda like an ATM debit card. Not sure how they security of it works, but should make things easier in many situations assuming few SNAFUS. I’m sure it’s being studied up the wazzoo.

As to why not give people cash: 1) agribusiness would be upset (note that food stamps is in US Dept of Ag and not with anti-poverty programs and WIC over in Dept. of Health and Human Services), 2) people just don’t trust poor folks. In most cases, however, the household economics are such that the amount of food stamps will not be more than the household budget for food, so it functions like money in the sense that it frees up cash to be spent on other things.

Some states do supplement these programs, but that is rare. The difference between states or cities is one of administrative competence and political will. States have a wide variety of success in getting people to participate, or in allowing people to participate. Food Stamps is one of the biggest anti-poverty programs in the US. It was spared from being “block granted” to the states in the 1990s. Along with a few other programs, it remains an entitlement (i.e., if you qualify, you get it, the government cann’t say it ran out of funding for it). Oddly, WIC is not an entitlement.

If you want to read a book on the topic in the US more generally, with some history, try “Toward and End to Hunger” published in maybe 1999 or 2000. I forget the author right now, but the title will lead you there.

From the USDA site:

Although stores can determine whether or not to take food stamps, in practice every large store does. Every small one too. I’m sure there are some stores and perhaps some cities where this is less true, but food stamps are well nigh universally accepted.

As Walloon already said, food stamps are given instead of money so that alcohol and cigarettes can’t legally be purchased. There is also less of a stigma about food stamps than there is for out-and-out welfare, because no direct money is involved. The U.S. is not a classic welfare state, so all these programs are looked upon with a great deal of suspicion and approbation. Programs have to be presented in such a way that keeps the poor from “wasting” money on non-approved items.

A black market does exist in food stamps, as is inevitable, but it’s not a huge problem except for a few places at a few times.

Eligibility rules are given at the USDA site. It’s a national program with standardized benefits, except for Alaska and Hawaii. Hawaii has notoriously higher costs than any of the contiguous states. Alaska is unique in its own ways, since every citizen gets a cut of oil revenue from the state. Eligibility for food stamps does not imply eligibility for any other program. Each has its own rules and regulations.

A few more questions;

You say agribusiness have a stake in this. Does this mean you have to spend them on US products or can you buy tea and foie gras etc?

Also is there any incentive to use them “wisely” ie not to spend them on sugary salty junk whcih has a habit of making up poor people’s diet (at least it does here).

Now lets talk money.

Lets imagine a family of four. Mum Dad an 11 year old and an eight year old (ie mine). How poor would they have to be to get these stamps, and how many would they get?

According to the site MsRobyn gave, you’d be eligible for a maximum of $500, depending on your income and expenses, and a few other variables. That site also leads you to a number of state-specific tools that give you an estimate based on information you feed into it.

http://www.aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/04poverty.shtml <–This link will give you the table to see if a family is officially poor based on the size of the household. However, since the poverty “line” in the US is so stingy, most programs allow you to be up to some larger percent, like 150 or 175% of the threshold. Also, there is a complex (very complex in many states) process for getting on Food Stamps, that involves examining your assets and income, so the table is not entirely helpful for determining a family situation. States have some say so over who gets on, but how much is beyond me. If you look at the FRAC website I gave, you can probably find links to some states or groups that have online estimators for determing if you qualify and you can put in some numbers to play with various scenarios.

You can buy products from anywhere, but most people will be being US agribusiness related products (cereals, milk, baby food, canned veggies, potatoes, bread, etc.).

Regarding this concern that poor people are dumb and spend this money poorly, the idea behind food stamps, in part, is to let people act in the market as any person would with cash. People who have kids might wish to buy soda for a birthday party or a snack. It would be a large and nasty fight in Congress to decide what goes on the “good” list or not. Believe me, agribusiness in the nation is so strong that one subsection (like apple growers in MI or peanut farmers in GA) can hold up gigantic pieces of legislation if they are pissed off. Some states do nutrition education and the federal government is looking into, if not doing, more of this. However, studies show that people on food stamps eat better than similar people not on food stamps. Many bad eating habits of the poor stem from the availability and ease of stretching hi-carb foods, the connection of poor pre-natal/childhood nutrition to future nutrition and the connection of stress relief and certain comfort foods vs other activities (gym membership, vacation, etc.).

Correction, by officially poor, I mean poor for the program guidelines. There is another table, related but different, for determining if a household is poor for surveys the Census does. You can read on that site all about this weird dualism.

I hope this isn’t a hijack - when we were kids we’d tease each other about “government cheese” (something my mom’s family actually got once or twice when she was little - she says the cheese was awesome but the meat was naaasty.) Is there no longer any such thing? If so, when was it phased out? (I assume this has something to do with farm subsidies?)

Food stamps have a lot more penetration in the United States; they are accepted by most groceries stores these days. There was a period a few years back in which many communities had only one participating store, and that store was often in a nasty neighborhood, poorly maintained, and expensive. However, there are now nearly 25 million people on the food stamp program, which is a large enough market force to encourage the mainstream grocers to get involved, and so we don’t see this sort of abuse so much anymore.

That used to be a serious problem, but the switchover to electronic benefit cards has made it a lot harder. (Not impossible, but harder.)

Government cheese was still available back in the 90s when I volunteered at a soup kitchen. However, very few places have the infrastructure set up to distribute it to recipients (the law requires that recipients must be qualified to receive the benefit, and doing a qualification form for a block of cheese is too much work so most places just don’t bother), so much of it sits mouldering in warehouses.

When I worked in a convenience store, we kept a stack of $1 stamps in the cash register. If a person used food stamps to pay for a purchase by using a $5 or $10 or $20 stamp, and the “change” exceeded 99 cents, then the change was returned using these $1 stamps to cover the “dollar” part of the change, and coins for the rest. I was told that the gov’t had said to do it that way.

I remember one lady who just made me ill. She had four kids, and would send each of them into the store with a $1 stamp, while she waited in the car. Each kid would purchase a piece of 5-cent candy with that stamp, and receive 95 cents in change (coins). The four kids would then leave the store, and Mommy would then come in a buy a pack of cigarettes with a pile of coins. Fortunately, people like her seemed to be the exception.