Stigma may finally undo ‘food stamps’

WASHINGTON – The young man was a big help to friends just getting used to food stamps.

“They would ask, ‘Can y’all go in the store for me? Here’s my stamps; will you buy the food?’” said the now-grown man, an Alexandria, Va., parks employee.

“The parents would go sometimes, but if the parents would send them, the kids, they were not used to having food stamps. They would feel ashamed.”

Food stamps still can make people feel that way, which is why the phrase “food stamps” has lately become a candidate for getting tossed out of the government’s lexicon.

Call food stamps something else, everyone interviewed for this story said, pausing to think about food assistance and the stigma that has endured far longer than the actual stamps.

Of the 14 current and former food stamp users interviewed for this story, all but the Alexandria man, who wanted to be called only by his middle name, Morgan, said they felt uncomfortable being identified by name.

Across the country, in state food stamp agencies and local offices where the poor apply for assistance, people have rallied arguments to banish the phrase “food stamps.”

No. 1: There haven’t been stamps since 1943. After food stamps (1939 to 1943) came coupons (1961 to 2004) and then cards, but everyone kept saying “food stamps.”

No. 2: Everyone uses electronic debit cards anyway, by a 1996 order of Congress.

No. 3: Enough with the shame.

The renaming effort got a boost from research by government and nonprofit organizations showing that stigma and misinformation were two of the main reasons given by people who qualified for food stamps but did not use them – two of every five eligible people nationwide, according to a recent Agriculture Department estimate.

The Food Stamp Program could be renamed next year if the Agriculture Department, which has been accepting ideas for new names, submits the issue to Congress in time for its vote on reauthorization of the farm bill. Lawmakers also could consider it as a separate issue.

Some states are not waiting for the federal government’s move. New names for food stamp programs are in place in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington, said Margaret Andrews, an economist with the Agriculture Department’s economic research service. The phrase “food stamps” does not appear anywhere on many state-issued food cards.

“There are some states that don’t even talk about food stamps anymore,” Andrews said. “Not in the eligibility interview, not on the application.”

The economic landscape has changed. More working people are qualifying for and using food stamps, a result of trying to pay ever costlier medical and housing bills on wages that have barely stayed ahead of inflation in the past decade.

An average of about 25 million a month participated in the program in fiscal 2005, Andrews said.

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