The Federal food stamp and related in-kind commodity distributions: economic history and evaluation in a public choice perspective

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


The food stamp and commodity distribution programs both attempt to provide nutritional aid to the domestic poor. This makes them welfare programs. But they also represent efforts to make use of excess farm production. This means they are agricultural surplus disposal programs. Although both programs claim an ability to provide both services, commodity distribution is thought to be the better surplus removal method, while food stamps are preferred as a welfare program.

The history of these two programs illustrates the conflict between a preference for welfare and a preference for surplus disposal, and the compromises which were made between them. It is the story of a political power struggle which began during the Great Depression. In the three decades which followed, agriculture's power waned and welfare power increased.

The purpose of this dissertation is to examine the functioning of the various government institutions as illustrated by their handing of these two programs. Naturally, some of the observations pertain specifically to these two programs, to agriculture and to welfare. Others, such as voting behavior, logrolling, and political rhetoric are more representative of government in general.

Evidence concerning political deals proved to be quite interesting. This vote-trading, or logrolling, is an accepted part of the legislative process, but it does not enjoy what could be described as a "good reputation," even among the traders.

Various studies have made use of simple or complex analyses of recorded voting behavior. But these cannot tell the whole story. Committee hearings and floor debates provide a different insight into the motives behind legislators' actions. The final vote on a bill may not be as revealing as the efforts to pass amendments. In other words, the type of amendment can show motivations which voting behavior does not.

If a legislator finds he must vote for a program which he really does not support, as part of a deal for example, he may try to weaken the bill. While a food stamp bill finally passed in 1959, it only gave permission for the Secretary of Agriculture to act. It was no secret that he had no intention of using food stamps.

In addition to the analysis of the historical events, there is a chapter highlighting some of the program's operating regulations and one which examines some of the program's effects on various sectors of the economy. An amended version of the Food Stamp Act is found in the Appendix.