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The Important Difference Between SNAP And Food Stamps

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Republicans are locked in a standoff over federal spending and whether to tighten “work requirements” in certain federal programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

People sometimes call SNAP the program for “food stamps,” because the government used to give people actual paper stamps to redeem for food at grocery stores. But the term is now misleading — SNAP has operated with debit cards for the past 20 years and was officially renamed in 2008.

And the old name has baggage. Voters feel differently about the program depending on whether it’s called “SNAP” or “food stamps,” according to Data for Progress, a liberal polling firm that tested the different terms on separate groups earlier this year.

The surveys found that 70% of voters favored increased funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, while 60% of voters in the other group supported more money for food stamps. The 10-point difference held among both Democrats and Republicans.

Data for Progress also found that voters are familiar with the new name and its acronym, with 83% saying they’d heard of SNAP and 74% saying they’d heard of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“It’s 2023, no one is rocking up to the checkout counter with paper stamps anymore,” Matthew Cortland, a Data for Progress senior fellow, said in an email. “SNAP is a vital program that helps millions of Americans put food on the table at a time of high food inflation. It’s time to leave the outdated stigma of ‘food stamps’ in the past.”

The term “food stamps” may also conjure incorrect impressions about program beneficiaries. For instance, a HuffPost /YouGov survey in 2018 found that most voters believe that most people on food stamps are Black, even though more white than Black Americans receive SNAP benefits.

The program serves more than 20 million households monthly, providing an average benefit of $577 for a family of three. The money can be used only for food at grocery stores, with some exceptions. Most recipient households contain children, older Americans or people with disabilities.

Republicans want to trim enrollment among nondisabled, childless adults as part of broader legislation that would cut federal spending and raise the government’s “debt ceiling,” a legal limit on government borrowing. If House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) can’t reach a deal with President Joe Biden, the government could default next month, potentially hurting the economy.

For the most part, the policymakers involved in the debate have avoided using SNAP’s old name, even if the media hasn’t. So far this year, the term “food stamps” has only been uttered eight times in House or Senate floor speeches, the mentions equally split between the two parties, according to a search of the congressional record. But Republicans often use the term “welfare,” which is probably even more loaded with racial connotations, as a catchall for any federal program for low-income households.

The White House has signaled some openness to stricter eligibility for unemployed adults to receive benefits from federal programs, but Biden has suggested changes to SNAP would be a tall order.

“I’m not going to agree to a deal that protects wealthy tax cheats and crypto traders while putting food assistance at risk for nearly a hundred — excuse me — nearly 1 million Americans,” Biden said Sunday.