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Kansas, Missouri played key roles in food stamps history

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Saturday, August 31, 2013, at 10:02 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Sep. 5, 2013, at 6:46 a.m.

Kansas and Missouri played important roles in the formation of the food stamps program.

Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole helped father the modern food stamps program in the 1970s and supported a “marriage of convenience” by putting both crop subsidies for farmers and food for the poor in the farm bill.

For decades, urban politicians voted for farm subsidies that benefited rural areas. And in return, rural politicians supported food stamps that mainly benefited urban districts.

The first food stamps program began in the late 1930s, mainly to shore up farm prices by getting rid of surpluses. One avenue for disposing of those surpluses was to give them to the poor.

The program debuted in 1939, the same year the first retailer was caught cheating.

That effort ended in the 1940s but was revived in 1964, thanks largely to the efforts of the late Leonor K. Sullivan, a Democratic member of the U.S. House from St. Louis.

Known as “the mother of the food stamp plan,” Sullivan forced the program through Congress by threatening to block peanut subsidies important to Southern farmers.

In May 1968, a CBS special report, “Hunger in America,” helped prompt Dole, a Republican, and the late Sen. George McGovern, a Democrat, to push for a more generous program.

But as is the case today, controversy and political bickering surrounded the program.

In 1977, Dole and other Republicans pushed to target benefits to the neediest, simplify administration and tighten controls; Democrats wanted easier access.

In the end, said Dole, “I am confident that this bill eliminates the greedy and feeds the needy.”

Participation hit a high of 28 million in 1994 and declined throughout the 1990s. But when restrictions were eased in the current recession, participation exploded again, leading to this summer’s impassioned food stamps debate.

Source: Official U.S. Department of Agriculture histories, Kansas City Star clip files and “Let them Eat Promises; The Politics of Huner in America” by Nick Kotz

Reach Mike McGraw at 816-234-4423 or mcgraw@kcstar.com.

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