Category Archives: Government Programs

A Brief History of Welfare in America

brief history of welfare

This week I listened to another audiobook courtesy of the Overdrive app and my local library. If you have a smart phone, tablet, or e-reader, I highly recommend you ask your local library if they have the Overdrive app available. There are tons of audiobooks and e-books you can check out for free.
Anyway, when I was scrolling through audio titles recently, I came upon a book called $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. My first response to the cover material and introduction was skepticism. For as much as I know about poverty and hunger, I still did not believe that this extreme level of poverty was possible in America. Between SNAP, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security Disability, welfare, WIC, private charities, and private donations, I could not believe that there were people with no job AND who were turned down from these social security nets.

As the authors, a sociology professor and a social work professor, began to unwrap their research, I could see the pockets of this level of destitution that exist here in the United States. I still had trouble finding sympathy for some of the subjects because of their terrible life choices. The authors did not go digging for the most innocent victims of poverty, to be sure. I am also not completely sold on some of their conclusions. Their plan involves a lot of expansion in government services and job creation, yet they offer few if any suggestions about how to fund such programs.

But feelings and solutions aside, the most valuable part of this book in my opinion was the historical context it gave to American welfare programs. So using this book as my source, today’s post is a review of that history.

The Great Depression
Prior to the Great Depression in the 1930s, government welfare programs were virtually unheard of in the United States. But when things got desperate, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted several pieces of legislation aimed at putting Americans back to work and providing for those who were unable to care for themselves. Many of the programs (such as the Works Progress Administration which put Americans to work on public works programs) expired or were discontinued when the Depression ended. Others continue even to this day, including Social Security for the elderly and disabled, Medicare and Medicaid health insurance. One of the programs that came out of the Depression era was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly known as welfare. AFDC provided a cash safety net for families with children who found themselves in a desperate situation.

The Great Society
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson greatly expanded social service programs, including AFDC, as part of his “Great Society” initiatives. Johnson’s goal was to eliminate poverty and racial inequality in America through a series of legislation which expanded existing social programs like Social Security, AFDC, food stamps, and Medicare/Medicaid. It also created Head Start, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The 1970s and 1980s
Reaction to the Great Society programs were mixed. While it provided tremendously for struggling Americans, many felt that it rewarded indolence and unwed procreation. Edin and Schaefer argue that welfare was widely unpopular after the Great Society because it was at odds with deeply held American values like self-sufficiency, the primacy of family, and the value of hard work. They site a study where the majority of Americans in a survey group stated that they believed that the government was not doing enough to help the poor, and in the same survey they responded that welfare was too expensive. Americans were concerned that welfare was trapping people in a cycle of dependency, and they complained of costly abuses of the system. Ronald Reagan made welfare reform a campaign issue in the late 1970s, and the popular support for welfare reform helped get him elected.
Also during this time, the food stamps program was renamed SNAP, and a program using an Electronic Balance Transfer (EBT) card rather than paper food stamps was instituted to cut down on the (illegal) sale of food stamps, a popular survival strategy for people with no cash income.

Welfare Reform
For all the rhetoric, Reagan was not able to push though significant welfare reform. The issue continued to be a popular campaign topic but difficult to enact. In 1991/92, Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton took up the mantle, promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Once elected, President Clinton set out to reform the welfare system using aspects of a plan proposed by Harvard professor Dr. David Ellwood. Elwood’s plan proposed a system that encouraged work through a combination of cash welfare and job training, with limits on welfare that would encourage individuals to wean off the system and guaranteed jobs in government if nothing was available in the private sector. As the various welfare bills made their way through committees, the House, the Senate, and onto the President’s desk (where two welfare reform bills were vetoed), the legislation looked less and less like Ellwood had imagined. The final result was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which virtually eliminated welfare as we knew it and instituted a new work-based program. It replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a program that supplied cash welfare with strict time limits and work requirements designed to prevent long-term welfare dependence. The results have been mixed. Proponents are quick to point out that the welfare rolls have shrunk dramatically, but opponents point out that the number of families suffering from lack of resources, and the strain on private charities have increased as a result of the reforms.

The System Today
The TANF program was reauthorized in 2005 with slight adjustments. Following the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a temporary addition to TANF designed to get Americans through the recession. It provided a temporary TANF emergency fund (2009-10) as well as jobs programs aimed at stimulating the economy and improving American infrastructure through public works programs.
In 2010 the TANF program was reauthorized for a second time.

It’s not easy to tell the whole story of American welfare in 1000-ish words. I know this does not cover every argument for and against the programs. But it does provide you with a basic understanding of how we got to where we are today. Edin and Schafer argue that the old system was out of sync with American values and full of holes, but they also argue that the current system leaves many people with few legal options. They propose further reforms that focus on wage and workplace protections, and work opportunities, among other ideas.

This feels a bit scary, like opening Pandora’s Box, but if we agree to be civil I think we can have this discussion. What POSITIVE changes would you like to see in the way the federal government treats the poor? More mental health services? An increase in the minimum wage? Leave a comment!

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) 101


It’s time again to take a look at one of America’s food aid programs. If you’re interested in the other programs I’ve covered in this series, check out the links!

SNAP (Food Stamps)
Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
UN World Food Programme (International)
Meals on Wheels (Non-profit, not government program, although they do distribute on behalf of programs that feed the elderly)
Head Start 101
The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)
The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – The Declaration of Independence

All men are created equal… It’s a founding principle in America, the core of who we think we are as a nation. But are we really born equal in this country or anywhere in the world? But all over this nation (and around the world) there are those who are born into situations that will stunt and limit them for their whole lives. Poverty, discrimination, and disability impede the unalienable rights of many.

Most of us are familiar with America’s history with the Native American population. As white settlers moved west in the 18th and 19th centuries, they decimated the native populations and forced the survivors onto smaller and smaller reservation lands. For the most part, these reservations were located on land that was no good for farming and without valuable mineral resources. The native cultural practices and languages were discouraged or forcibly changed. Cruely, the Indians were not allowed to be themselves, nor were they accepted even if they did change.

For generations, Native Americans have been behind the curve – perfectly capable but stunted by malnutrition, poor medical care and education on the reservations, and the cycle of poverty and suffering has just kept perpetuating itself. Of course there are exceptions, but when you start with an uphill climb just to get to a level playing field, it’s hard to win.

Many answers have been suggested. One of them is to include Native American reservations in government food distribution programs. The idea, of course, is that access to healthy foods will keep people healthy, and give children the nutritional support that they need to learn and grow. So the American government established a wing of the commodity-distribution program that specifically addresses nutrition on Indian reservations.

Being a commodity distribution program, the people who receive aid from the FDPIR program do not receive money or vouchers, but are given a monthly box of food stuffs from an approved list of foods. The program targets “low-income American Indian and non-Indian households that reside on a reservation, and households living in approved areas near a reservation or in Oklahoma that contain at least one person who is a member of a Federally-recognized tribe.”

To receive aid from this program, one must contact one’s tribal government to apply. Aid is distributed based on financial need, and families have to reapply every 12 months, or 24 months in the case of the elderly or disabled.


I hope you have appreciated this series of government program 101 posts. If you know of a program I missed or if you have any questions, please leave a comment!

The Emergency Food Assistance Program – TEFAP 101


It has been a while since I brought you a 101 post about an American or international hunger relief program. But we’re not out of programs to explore. That’s one of the things I’ve learned as I researched for these 101 posts – there are A LOT of different programs and participating distribution organizations out there! Here are the agencies and organizations we have looked at so far…

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps) – Longer-term (time in the program varies widely) assistance by way of money for food (in the form of a prepaid card that works only for qualifying food purchases) given to individuals who make their own choices within the program guidelines.

WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) – Food handouts for women and their children from pregnancy through kindergarten in exchange for the mothers taking nutrition training courses.

NSLP (National School Lunch Program) – Targeted provision given to schools so they can provide free and reduced price lunches to school-age children in low-income families.

UN World Food Programme – (International) Food relief arm of the United Nations

Meals on Wheels – A non-profit organization that receives money from these government funding sources to provide meals and a check in for seniors who are trying to remain independent. Meals on Wheels is not a government program, but is one of the partner non-profits that administers some of the government spending.

Head Start – A preschool version of the NSLP designed to meet the vital nutritional requirements of a growing preschool age child.

TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) – a food distribution program that buys agricultural products and distributes them to emergency feeding organizations like food banks and soup kitchens.


And still to come…

Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) –

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) – Program specific to provisions for Native Americans living on reservations.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) – Senior specific food aid program.

Other smaller programs, international organizations, and aid distributing organizations

For today, let’s take a quick look at TEFAP:

TEFAP stands for The Emergency Food Assistance Program. Through the TEFAP program, the US Department of Agriculture sends actual physical food to agencies in each state (such as food banks or soup kitchens) that provide emergency provision for people in need. The organizations have to meet certain criteria, like providing the means to protect the food from spoilage and loss. They are also responsible for making sure that the households receiving the food meet state eligibility standards. The food items provided by TEFAP include things like dry pasta and beans, canned fruits and vegetables, soups, dairy products, etc.

The program started in 1981 as a means to help reduce surplus government food stores while also helping those in need. In 2014, the program cost the government $318.15 million, $49 million of which went to administrative costs. The rest covered the cost of the food. Compared to some of the big programs, like SNAP, NSLP, and WIC, the money spent on TEFAP is small potatoes.

Because many emergency food distributors rely on the products they receive from TEFAP, so their clients have to meet income guidelines to keep the organization eligible for the TEFAP food. There are also food banks and charitable services that do not require users to meet eligibility guidelines. This is important to know because sometimes a person or family’s circumstances change suddenly, while on paper things don’t look so bad. Agencies receiving government support from programs like TEFAP need that layer of accountability, while other organizations can have broader standards because they raise their funds from private donors who believe in their mission. Both types of organization play an important role in feeding the 10-12% of Americans who struggle with food insecurity.

Does your organization receive support from TEFAP? We want to hear about your experience in the comments below!

Meals on Wheels 101 and Service Opportunity

Meals on Wheels

In 2010 there were 57 million senior citizens (defined as over the age of 65) in America. That number is expected to double to 112 million seniors in 2050. This explosive growth is because 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day, and American life expectancy is at an all-time high. Seniors are the fastest growing population segment in America.

As seniors age, many struggle to remain independent. Expenses grow faster than their fixed retirement income and Social Security cost of living increases can keep up. Physical problems make it hard to get around. Social isolation, especially in rural areas, may mean that no one checks on their health and safety for weeks at a time. Senior citizens have to fall back on Medicare/Medicaid more heavily when their physical and/or social limitations lead to longer hospital stays after treatments, or earlier nursing home moves.

The solution is really quite simple. Someone needs to check on seniors who live alone, and help them get groceries and prepare a hot meal. Of course in most situations the family takes care of these needs, but what about seniors who have no family, or those who live far from their loved ones?

That is the idea behind Meals on Wheels (MOW). Meals on Wheels is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that has provided hot meals and check-ins to seniors who are poor, physically disabled, or socially isolated since their first meal delivery in Philadelphia back in 1954. They claim to save tax money by allowing seniors to be safely independent for a longer time.

Funding for MOW is a public-private partnership. There is some tax money designated to feed seniors in need, but much of their income comes from corporate and private donations of money and food, and most of their work is done by volunteers. Meals on Wheels America is the national organization. They oversee more than 5,000 community-based MOW operations around the country. Nationwide, those local chapters deliver more than a million meals a day, and more than 2 million volunteers work with them preparing food, delivering meals, serving (MOW dinners are served at some senior centers as well as home delivery), doing office work, helping at events, and conducting safety checks.

The time commitment for volunteers and the skills needed vary from job to job. To find out what kind of help is needed in your area, or to put yourself or a loved one on the list to receive Meals on Wheels, contact your local MOW chapter (Find it HERE).

Meals on Wheels has faced some budget cuts in recent years. This CNN Article from 2013 was helpful in my research and covers the topic of their funding issues.

The Better Business Bureau has rated the national MOW organization. See that review HERE.
Charity Navigator has reviewed the local MOW chapters. Visit their site to search for your local chapter.

The national Meals on Wheels website has tons of great resources for seniors and their families.

Have you or a loved one experienced Meals on Wheels? Share your story in the comments!

Documentary Film Review – A Place at the Table

Film Review - A Place at the Table

Good Food Shelf Friday morning everyone! I have a new kind of post for you today, my review of the documentary A Place at the Table. It’s available on Netflix, as well as Amazon Instant Video (free for Prime members).

Before I jump into that, I have some exciting news. Within the last 10 days I have gotten confirmation that BOTH of the articles I recently submitted to online magazines were accepted! The (original) piece in Mamalode won’t be up until April 7, but the Everyday Windshield article (a reworking of the blog post on Meal Ministry) went up on their site this week. You can view it HERE. This is really exciting for me as I love to write and play with words, but have previously only done writing for school, this blog, and my on-again/off-again personal journal.

But back to the movie…

A Place at the Table was made by Magnolia Pictures, the people who made Food, Inc. It was directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, and released in June, 2013.

The premise/thesis of this film is that farm subsidy programs spend billions of taxpayer dollars every year subsidizing corporate agri-business at the expense of American families. The subsidy programs were designed to end the Great Depression, but due in no small part to lobbyists, they were allowed to continue after the Depression ended, and they continue to this day. As family farms have given way to corporate food production, the subsidies intended for farm families have gone to these corporations as well. Additionally, the crops we subsidize are not fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grains. They’re mostly commodities like corn, soybeans, and wheat, which are used for livestock and manufacturing more than food.

The film primarily bounces back and forth between a single mom of two in Philadelphia, and a community in Colorado. There are also segments of a teacher in Mississippi introducing her class to nutrition after she herself was diagnosed with diabetes. A number of experts contributed, including healthcare workers, nutrition experts, a chef, and a legislator (Rep. James McGovern, D, Mass.).

In 1968, CBS aired a documentary called Hunger in America which was extremely influential and led to the virtual end of hunger in America. When the recession hit in the 1980s, all of that progress was undone as the number of individuals in need of assistance skyrocketed while funding decreased. In response, emergency charities (food banks and soup kitchens) sprung up or expanded all over the country to meet the need. The film applauds these private programs for the work they do in communities across the country, but it argues that charity is a band-aid, not a cure.

A few things the film does well:

They did a nice job explaining that obesity and hunger are not opposites; they’re “neighbors.” When a family has a very limited food budget, processed, shelf-stable, nutritionally barren foods are available more readily and for less money than fresh fruits and vegetables.

The film hit on the danger of nutritional deficiency in the first three years of a child’s life. Even short-term periods of malnutrition can have a permanent impact on a child’s cognitive development and some of the potential that is lost cannot be recovered.

They point out that legislators, by and large, cannot relate to the challenges of hunger. Without personal experience with the stress of trying to feed a family on very little, the statistics mean very little to them (and to many of us watching the film). School lunches and other government feeding programs are just budget items to them. There is a lot of talk about school lunch programs in the film. They describe the immense challenges that schools face in making healthy food for kids on a budget that hasn’t increased (except to keep up with inflation) since the 1970s. I know from my personal grocery shopping experience that produce has gone up a lot higher than just keeping up with the inflation of the dollar!

They talk a little about the larger cost of hunger in America. It’s not just about food stamps and government programs. Hunger costs taxpayers who foot the bill for malnutrition related conditions in the population. Healthcare, disability, unemployment, therapies and special education programs all require more resources in a population with high numbers of malnourished. The film argues that more money for hunger relief up front becomes less money for other social services later.

A few issues:

The film is very political. One reviewer on Amazon called it “Marxist Trash and Poison mixed with Truth.” It leans left. Way left. The implicit villains are Republicans and industry. There is no consideration for how these single moms became single moms or where the kids’ dad(s) are. What about personal responsibility? This is a tough question for me. On one hand, I believe in personal responsibility: in not having kids you can’t feed, in working for what you need. On the other hand, I know that things happen. Illness, injury, death, job loss, inflation, etc. A number of things out of a person’s control can take them from responsible to destitute. I don’t really have an answer for this. All I can say for sure is that children cannot control where and when they’re born. Punishing the kids for the failings of their parents is misguided, unfair, and dangerous.

Editing choices presented the story they wanted you to have, not necessarily the full story. In Colorado, ten-year-old Rosie introduces us to her life. In the story she mentions sharing a bed with her sister, but we never see the sister. Her mom talks about her job as a waitress, but we never hear anything about dad. Grandma is interviewed several times, and she mentions that 7 people live in their house, yet we are introduced to only the three. Clearly we are not getting all the information. Perhaps too many characters would have been confusing, I don’t know. All I know is that there is a lot that went unexplained, which made me wonder if we’re getting truth or fabrication. It’s like the famous Depression photos taken by Dorothea Lange. She is famous for the picture “Migrant Mother” (pictured below). Lange intentionally left dad out of the photo because it was more powerful and heartbreaking without a big, strong man in the picture.

by Dorothea Lange

As many reviewers on Amazon have pointed out, there is no mention of one simple solution to life without produce – gardening. Community gardens, deck and window plants, etc. – there are a lot of options to do something no matter what your circumstances, and it costs very little. It’s not a total solution, but it’s an area that went completely unexplored in this film.


I’m glad I watched A Place at the Table. It wasn’t the definitive exploration of hunger in America, but it made many good points. My biggest takeaway is that I am going to make sure my food shelf donations aren’t junk food; I don’t want to be another source of the problem. I am also more interested in the debate over school lunches and funding the school lunch program.

If you are an open-minded individual who wants to understand some of the complex issues of hunger in America, I recommend the movie. If you have strong, inflexible political views on either side, you will either love it as proof of your ideals and be blind to its imperfections, or you will hate it as leftist propaganda and see only its imperfections. If you can go into it with the mindset that it is not perfect but it has things to teach me, I think you’ll gain some valuable insights. I know I did.

Follow-up on my New Year’s resolutions (see that post HERE): I set a goal of packing meals at Feed My Starving Children 6 times in 2015, and I’m falling behind. I’ve only been there once so far, and have scheduled a visit for next week. There is plenty of year left, but I need to get in gear! My other resolution was to have a Food Shelf Friday dinner once a week 50 out of the 52 weeks in 2015. I’m going to miss my first one this week. Someone in my house has to be somewhere every. single. night. We might be able to share a family meal on Sunday night (in which case I have a box of red beans and rice and two cans of corn ready to go for both us and the food bank), but if it doesn’t work this will be our first week without an FSF dinner since Christmas. I hate when life gets in the way of how I want to live… On that deep thought, I’ll let you go. Have a wonderful week, and don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments!