To afford dignity

July 03, 2004

IN THE BEGINNING, there really were stamps. Orange stamps and blue stamps, exchangeable at markets and for government surplus foodstuffs. Sometime between 1939 and 1943, participation in the original federal food-stamp program peaked at 4 million Americans. For each dollar they spent to buy the orange stamps, they received a half-dollar's worth of blue.

The program was halted in 1943, a U.S. Department of Agriculture history notes, "since the conditions that brought the program into being - unmarketable food surpluses and widespread unemployment - no longer existed."

Imagine that. Today, of course, we know that the need never ended, only the will of some politicians to use taxpayer resources to combat it. Congress called for a new food-stamp program in 1959, pilot projects launched in 1961 and President Lyndon B. Johnson established a permanent program in 1964. USDA records show a Mr. and Mrs. Muncy of Paynesville, W.Va., household of 15, bought a can of pork and beans in the first transaction of the nation's modern food-stamp program.

Hunger also keeps up with the times, we were reminded last week, as the nation's food-stamp program celebrated another milestone: After 20 years of trial and error, every state at last has converted from paper to plastic.

From a bureaucratic point of view, debit cards are easier to manage; can produce operational savings and deter theft, errors and some types of fraud; and provide a speedier system for distributing assistance that is no longer purchased by the user, but is granted as a (now cashless) benefit based on family need.

With more than 10 million households receiving more than $2 billion in "food stamp" benefits each month as of early this year - including 124,500 Marylanders - and more than half of the benefits aiding children, these also could be called convenience and compassion cards. They ease transactions in the check-out line and help destigmatize the shopper who is dependent on government help, and many states have begun using them to distribute welfare and other cash benefits.

Notice how the euphemisms abound: Texas has its Lone Star Card, and California its Golden State Advantage Card with a scene of the sparkling Pacific on the front. There's the Louisiana Purchase Card, the Virginia Cardinal Card and the Hoosier Works Electronic Benefits Card. The grandmother of them all is the bright orange Independence Card - Maryland was first to put electronic benefits cards into statewide use, in 1993.

No more fumbling deep in your purse, trying to hide embarrassment while counting out the perforated coupons in denominations of $1, $5 and $10, says one Baltimore grandmother. She wishes the card looked even more like a regular banking card, but at least she senses she no longer holds up the line or attracts disapproving glares. It took a slice of plastic to afford some dignity.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, hoping to retire the misnomer "food stamps" with the coupons, is soliciting ideas for a name that better conveys the program's nutrition mission. Studies have shown that low-income families who receive food-stamp aid are eating more healthfully than those without it. Big Brother is less interested than one would expect in what foods individuals buy with the e-benefits cards, but has figured out that the technology can be used to track such trends.

Including this one: In the richest nation on the planet, hunger still lurks close as a shadow - in the apartments of seniors on fixed incomes, in the homes of disabled workers and college students who can't make ends meet, at the kitchen tables of grandparents who suddenly find themselves raising their children's children. It's hard enough for many of them to accept charity, much less dole. At least when Uncle Sam comes to dinner now, he's a bit more discreet.

- Jean E. Thompson

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