10/03/2012 12:33 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Beyond the Rhetoric: SNAP (Food Stamps) and America's Poor

Nearly 47 Million Americans -- about one in seven -- receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program.

While generally supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans the program does have its critics and, in large part, those criticisms have increased in recent months because of the growth of the number of beneficiaries and the increasing cost of the program during the last dozen years -- although that growth in participation and cost is largely a function of the weakness in the economy. As the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported, SNAP has acted in this recession as it has in past recessions, "providing a vital safety net for low income households to help as people work their way to greater self sufficiency."

Over the past dozen years, the administrations of Presidents Bush and Obama and Congress have worked together to improve and modernize the administration, nutritional support, integrity and effectiveness of the program, and do those things necessary to maintain public support for it. SNAP grew in both the Bush and Obama administrations. In the former, it expanded because the unequal economic growth of the 1980s left millions of working families, especially families with children, with wages below the poverty line, and because President Bush, with bipartisan support in Congress, improved eligibility for documented immigrants, especially children, and for low income working families.

During the Obama years, SNAP has grown because the recession has driven millions into poverty, and because the president and Congress improved the eligibility for unemployed adults to get benefits. But as unemployment falls in the future (which all of us hope) and the economy strengthens, participation in the SNAP program will also come down. The program is counter-cyclical, growing when the economy is weak and falling when the economy strengthens and people get back to work.

The result is a fundamentally strong program with an unusually strong history of bipartisan support that is doing what it was designed to do: help people when they need help, and pull back in better economic times when they have jobs and family-supporting wages. In my judgment, SNAP is the foundation of our American safety net for the poor and lower income working families.

SNAP responds when the national economy or a state or area economy is in trouble by providing necessary food support for the hungry and reacts quickly and robustly to these economic problems, as seen most dramatically during the past four years. It reduces hunger and food insecurity by providing very low-income people desperately needed assistance to purchase food through their local grocery stores and other normal commercial channels. It provides benefits which are generally so urgently needed by families that they are spent quickly -- 97 percent of benefits are redeemed by the end of the month of issuance -- thereby bolstering local economies during tough economic times.

SNAP also goes to the neediest Americans -- the overwhelming number of benefits to households with incomes below the poverty line. It reaches vulnerable populations, like households with low-income working adults and senior citizens, the disabled and children who come from needy families. It relieves pressure on the overwhelmed food banks, food pantries and religious organizations which are very often on the front lines of feeding the hungry, and explain that they would simply be unable to meet the added demand from hungry Americans that would come from weakening SNAP. And finally it is supported by the public -- a recent survey by the Food Research and Action Center found that three out of four voters think that cutting SNAP benefits to hungry Americans is the wrong way to reduce federal spending.

Most of the bipartisan deficit reduction proposals which have been discussed during the past two years -- Simpson-Bowles, Domenici-Rivlin; the Gang of Six, and others, as well as the Budget Control Act -- protected this program from cuts. And Congress and the Administration continue to look for ways to sensibly reduce program costs and improve nutrition education, all without decreasing benefits for eligible individuals and families.

Congress has a long history of bipartisan support for the program, from the efforts of Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern during its infancy, to recent Farm Bill efforts led by Senators Debbie Stabenow, Pat Roberts and many others. But that historic bipartisanship is unfortunately under attack now, and it is sorely needed to continue to provide the funds to feed folks who need this help. Without this necessary bipartisan support, a weakened SNAP Program would be far weaker and less comprehensive, leading to far more economically distressed and hungry families. And millions would have to rely almost exclusively on the efforts of food banks and other private charities -- which are critically important and extraordinarily humane participants of the safety net, but not sufficient to deal alone with the problems.

As a former Secretary of Agriculture, I helped to administer both the farm and nutrition programs passed by the Congress. I was proud that American policy was always on the side of our farmers and food producers, as well as on the side of helping hungry people who needed that food produced by those farmers in their times of distress. We can be proud that the United States has the most extensive anti-hunger and nutrition feeding programs in the world, helping millions survive these very tough economic times. Not a bad legacy at all for the greatest country in the world.

Dan Glickman is the head of the Aspen Institute's Congressional Program. He is also Chairman of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group based in Washington. Previously, he served as Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, where he administered the SNAP program.