Now that we’ve exposed the flaws from cutting welfare so it cannot provide adequate benefits during an historically bad recession, we can gather a new appreciation for the main mandatory spending program on the poor that has served to keep them afloat in these troubled times. That would be the food stamp program, also know as the SNAP, which unlike today’s welfare, is allowed to expand based on need.

A new study by the Agriculture Department has found that food stamps, one of the country’s largest social safety net programs, reduced the poverty rate substantially during the recent recession. The food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, reduced the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent in 2009, the most recent year included in the study, a significant impact for a social program whose effects often go unnoticed by policy makers.

The food stamp program is one of the largest antipoverty efforts in the country, serving more than 46 million people. But the extra income it provides is not counted in the government’s formal poverty measure, an omission that makes it difficult for officials to see the effects of the policy and get an accurate figure for the number of people beneath the poverty threshold, which was about $22,000 for a family of four in 2009.

“SNAP plays a crucial, but often underappreciated, role in alleviating poverty,” said Stacy Dean, an expert on the program with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group that focuses on social programs and budget policy.

Food stamp enrollment rose significantly, about 45%, between January 2009 and January 2012, but it fell slightly in January relative to December. That’s precisely what a safety net program should do – respond to human need. The reduction in enrollment comes from a general improvement in the economy. The 46 million on food stamps now will not be on them forever. The budget will contract in a good economy and expand in a bad one. That protects families and mirrors the kind of counter-cyclical spending that properly reacts to recessions.

And that’s what was taken away from the welfare program, to disastrous results. It’s also what Paul Ryan and his compatriots want to do to food stamps, along with Medicaid. A program providing supplemental nutrition assistance should not actually be the main source of anti-poverty benefits in the country. But with welfare gone, SNAP has filled that role. And eliminating the counter-cyclical nature of it would be simply devastating to poor families.

The stimulus package supplemented food stamp benefits, recognizing that they could provide this role. That increase has been squeezed out of the system, but the program remains crucial to reducing poverty. Food stamp benefits increase average income closer to the poverty line by between 6-11%, the USDA study showed. And about half of the program recipients — over 20 million — are children.

The simple axiom here is that giving poor people money will help make poor people richer. We’re a wealthy enough country that we can afford to do this, and the result benefits not just the poor, but the economy. A family that can gets their food needs taken care of can purchase other items and contribute to a local economy. Another way to go about this is to increase the minimum wage, which would increase purchasing power at the low end of the scale, without impacting employment statistics (no increase in the minimum wage ever has).

The Great Recession has been horrible, but it’s also been a test of new ways to deliver broad social benefits. And the old standby of cash-transfer programs that expand as needed has won out.