I wish that I'd had more time to talk about my ongoing work in nutrition policy history this year. It has tied together many of my interests and experiences, including government documents and publications, agricultural history and politics.
I was recently reviewing the website of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), a Department of Agriculture subagency that administers SNAP, the contemporary food assistance (food stamp) program. Like many government websites, this one has a data page where you can review tables on the programs that agency runs. The most interesting chart here, to me, is the historical enrollment in SNAP by year since the program began in the 1960s.
Now, you may or may not have heard Newt Gingrich's infamous assertion, which popped up during the 2012 Republican primary race, that President Obama was the "food stamp president." SNAP enrollment has, as Gingrich pointed out, shot up by dramatic numbers in recent years.
There are multiple levels of causality related to SNAP enrollment. Americans might have qualified for SNAP before 2009, but only started to enroll under Obama. Or maybe civil servants were increasing outreach or administration activities. Whatever the reason, the actual presidency of Obama may not matter at all with regards to enrollment. Many professional fact-checkers called Gingrich out on this.
So this brings me to President Nixon. Look at the numbers. From 1969, the year Nixon took office, until 1974, when he left, food stamp enrollment increased from 2 to 12 million Americans, a nearly five- or six-fold increase. 16 million joined under George W. Bush, and 14 million joined under Obama. Ten million joined under Nixon - not as much as under Bush and Obama, but still very large. And in terms of scale, the most dramatic increase (5-6x) was between 1969-1974.
The Food Stamp Program was relatively young in 1969. There were food stamps in the New Deal, but the Program didn't really begin until the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Nixon worked with Congress to ease a purchasing requirement - making sure that the poorest of the poor didn't have to put any money down before receiving the benefit. Nixon even launched an apparently little-studied Presidential Commission on food and nutrition, a body that I'd like to study sometime later this year. These efforts may have promoted increased food stamp participation.
Food stamps and SNAP were programs that have seemed to transcend and defy political lines (until somewhat recently). No sound-bite zinger is going to tell you the complete story - it's wrapped up in a complex history of agricultural policy. So if anyone ever tells you that Obama is the "food stamp president," you could just point out that food stamps quintupled under Nixon.