Revised December 2, 2003

A Provision by Provision Analysis of the Farm Bill
Stacy Dean and Dorothy Rosenbaum


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States, non-profit groups, and low-income families from around the country have spent the last few years working together to promote a new vision for the Food Stamp Program — one that allows eligible families, especially working families, to participate in the program for longer periods of time with less paperwork and fewer office visits.  The recently enacted Farm Bill should allow states to make significant progress toward this goal.

On May 13, 2002, President Bush signed into law the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-171), more commonly known as the Farm Bill.  The nutrition title of the Farm Bill reauthorizes the Food Stamp Program for five years, adds almost $7 billion in resources to the program, and significantly strengthens the program in a variety of ways.

The food stamp provisions fall into four categories:

These changes can help create a stronger Food Stamp Program and thereby make a critical difference in the well-being of millions of low-income individuals.  The Food Stamp Program is the nation's most important food assistance program, especially for children.  It provides more substantial nutrition assistance to low‑income children than all of the nation's child nutrition programs combined.  More than half of all food stamp participants are children, and over 80 percent of food stamp benefits go to families with children.  Furthermore, the Food Stamp Program is the only social program that creates a national benefit floor under nearly all categories of poor households, assisting low‑income children and their families as well as low‑income elderly, disabled and unemployed individuals.

Moreover, food stamps serve as an important work support by helping low‑wage workers make ends meet.  Leaders from across the political spectrum have agreed that a family supported by a full‑time, year‑round, minimum-wage worker should not have to live in poverty.  Such a family, however, will fall short of the poverty line by 25 percent, even after counting the Earned Income Tax Credit, if the family does not receive food stamps.  And because food stamps (unlike the EITC) come to families throughout the year, they can help these families meet monthly expense

Unfortunately, however, food stamp participation among eligible households has plummeted in recent years:

The decline in food stamp participation means that poor families are foregoing billions of dollars in federal food assistance each year.  In any given month of 2000, more than two million eligible working poor households did not participate in the Food Stamp Program.  These families gave up an average (in 2001) of about $200 per month in food stamp benefits, which can make the difference in enabling a low‑income family to put adequate food on the table each day.

While all of the reasons for the decline in food stamp participation among working families are not known with certainty, policy experts and state officials agree that barriers to participation in the program have become more significant in recent years, especially for working families:

In addition to these procedural barriers, research indicates that many low-income families that do not participate in the Food Stamp Program do not believe they are eligible.  Others mistakenly believe they are eligible for only a very small food stamp benefit.  Procedural barriers can compound these misperceptions: even if outreach efforts educate households about their potential eligibility, many households may not be willing to find out if they are eligible if the application process is too difficult or interferes with their work schedules.

Ironically, this deterioration in food stamp service to working families has been occurring at the same time that states have been easing the barriers that low-income working families face in obtaining health insurance.  States have taken significant new steps to reduce paperwork and to allow families to apply for health insurance outside of the welfare office.

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End Notes:

[1]  Trends in Food Stamp Program Participation: 1994 to 2000, Karen Cunningham, Mathematica Policy Research, June 2002, available at:

[2]  Reaching Those in Need: State Food Participation Rates in 1999, Allen Schrim and Laura Castner, Mathematica Policy Research, June 2002, available at: