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Using the term "food stamps"

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Food stamps are often referenced in news stories about the federal budget and economic inequality. Fifteen years ago the government changed the name from the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. Yet most people still call the program "food stamps." Recipients call it food stamps. Researchers call it food stamps. Politicians who support the program and who would like to end the program both call it food stamps. Even the government still calls it food stamps, in addition to SNAP.

Why? Because it's universally understood.

Originally, recipients would use actual stamps to pay for their food at the grocery store, a process that drew attention, and sometimes judgment, to their participation in the program. Eventually the program moved to plastic debit cards, and the government later changed the name, acknowledging there was a stigma.

But the effort to call it something else hasn't completely replaced the original terminology. An NPR listener wrote in critiquing NPR's use of the term. Our research turned up several stories where "food stamps" were mentioned in connection to the debt ceiling negotiations.

We talked to the standards editor and a national correspondent who often covers the federal program about the term. Read on to see what we learned.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Stamps and stigmas

Christian Elberfeld wrote on May 29: [NPR] uses the outdated term "food stamps" instead of SNAP. The name of the program was changed well over a decade ago; moreover it now has become somewhat stigmatic. NPR news should hold to its usual high standards.

NPR uses a few terms to describe federal food assistance. They include " SNAP benefits," "SNAP food assistance" and yes, "food stamps."

The program, which was originally called the Food Stamp Program and allowed people to buy stamps to extend their food budget, was implemented in 1939. Another version of the program would follow in the 1960s, and then the Food Stamp Act of 1964 made the program permanent.

The history page, under the section about the 2008 Farm Bill, noted: "In efforts to fight stigma, the law changed the name of the federal program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP as of Oct. 1, 2008, and changed the name of the Food Stamp Act of 1977 to the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008."

The government information page doesn't elaborate further on the referenced stigma or other reasons for the name change, but we found a 2008 press release that said the new name, SNAP, "more accurately reflects the program's true mission to provide food assistance and nutrition education to assist participants as they move to a healthier lifestyle and self-sufficiency."

The release added, "Today, participants access benefits with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, similar to debit cards — not stamps or coupons."

Though people receiving SNAP benefits no longer use physical stamps, the term has stuck.

"We use 'food stamps' because it's still more recognizable for many people than the term SNAP," NPR national correspondent Jennifer Ludden told us in an email. Ludden covers economic inequality, including systemic disparities in housing, food security and wealth.

Ludden said the term "food stamps" seems to be commonly used in NPR stories, along with stories from The New York Times and some other media outlets. "I do mix it up, though, using both food stamps and SNAP as well as food aid or assistance," she said.

In an email, standards editor Tony Cavin told us NPR has not issued any guidance on the term "food stamps." He noted that a page from the U.S. government's official website has "food stamps" in the URL. "If you click on the link and read the first line it says: How to apply for food stamps (SNAP benefits)," Cavin added.

Cavin also quoted from a New York City government website that explains how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program works: "Get help paying for groceries with SNAP. SNAP benefits are sometimes called food stamps. They come on a debit card that you can use at many grocery stores and farmers markets."

Cavin added that part of NPR's high standards is writing in a way that most clearly communicates what its journalists are trying to say.

"Most listeners and readers know what 'food stamps' are, I'm not sure as many will understand 'SNAP,'" he said. "This would explain why the government web pages I mentioned feel the need to use both terms."

He also challenged the idea that the term "food stamps" is a problem.

"I see no evidence that the term is either outdated or stigmatic," Cavin said. "If there is compelling evidence that either is the case, we would of course reconsider as we do with all issues surrounding language."

It's important not to conflate stigma around participation in the program with stigma around the language used to describe the program.

As Ludden put it: "I've heard people talk about feeling stigmatized when they use the program in a grocery store, but not specifically about the term 'food stamps,'" she said.

People who receive food assistance from the government have historically been stigmatized, as writer Janelle Harris describes in this piece.

A paper with recommendations to end the stigma from SNAP participants themselves said, "They feel judged by elected leaders, the press, people in grocery stores waiting behind them in line, and grocery store cashier clerks. Feeling judged and devalued was one of the most often reported challenges among participants in studies ..."

We did not find research that backed up the claim that SNAP recipients feel shamed by the term "food stamps" specifically. NPR's use of several terms when writing about the federal program, including food stamps, is a thoughtful approach, intended to communicate clearly and educate the audience.

We're open to looking at additional research and language evaluation if it's out there. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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