POLITICS
01/08/2014 05:48 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Jane Freeman, Widow Of Food Stamp Founder, Discusses The 'Need And The Embarrassment'

John Sunderland via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Jane Freeman remembers being at the grocery store one day after she and her late husband, Orville Freeman, had moved back home to Minnesota from Washington.

"I stood in line behind several ladies who were having to count out, and who were having language difficulties trying to count out their food stamps," Freeman remembered. Her husband, who died in 2003, had overseen the creation of the Food Stamp Program as Secretary of Agriculture in the 1960s.

Jane Freeman watched the clerk help the ladies sort out which things they could buy with their food stamps, and when they realized they didn't have enough money, which things they would leave at the register.

"It did delay people in line and some people were unhappy about it," Freeman, 92, said in a recent phone interview. "To me, it just showed the need and the embarrassment."

The Freemans were at the forefront of the "War on Poverty" when Lyndon Johnson declared it on this day in 1964, and the nutrition assistance program Orville Freeman helped create remains one of the most important tools in the federal government's antipoverty arsenal.

Republicans are marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the "war" with big speeches about finding new ways to wage it. In the background, reduced food stamp spending is a centerpiece of Republican policymaking this year.

"I'm afraid it's most of the party's agenda," said Freeman, who described herself as an ardent Democrat.

HuffPost had asked Freeman if any particular memory about food stamps stood out to her, and the grocery store anecdote is what came to mind. The story might seem somewhat banal, but between the need, the embarrassment, and the frustration of people in line, it's got almost everything.

First, the need: Food stamp spending has more than doubled since 2007, thanks mostly to a bad economy that has made more Americans than ever eligible for help. Currently 47 million receive monthly benefits. Republicans want to cut the program by about 5 percent, which would result in nearly 4 million fewer beneficiaries next year. Coincidentally, almost the same number of food stamp recipients are lifted from poverty by the program, though the effect of food stamp benefits is omitted from the official poverty estimate.

Next, the frustration: Stories abound about hardworking taxpayers watching as they wait in line behind people using food stamps to buy groceries. This summer Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told the tale of a constituent who saw someone use his food stamp debit card to buy crab legs, something the hardworking taxpayer couldn't afford for himself.

Finally, the embarrassment: Many Americans are ashamed to receive benefits, but not all. Last year House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) pointed to the story of a California surfer and rock musician who was not embarrassed that he used food stamps and was unashamed to admit that he didn't want a regular job. To Republicans, the food stamp surfer is evidence that too much government spending saps people of the will to work.

But to an ardent Democrat like Freeman, taking food money away from poor people is not doing them a favor.

"To see something that has been so important and so helpful for 50 years now, to now start chopping it off when the need is so great -- the way to get food to the hungry is established and good," Freeman said. "It just baffles me that people want to cut it."

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