By Jason Deparle and Robert Gebeloff
updated 12:01 a.m. ET, Thurs., Feb. 11, 2010
A decade ago, New York City officials were so reluctant to give out food stamps, they made people register one day and return the next just to get an application. The welfare commissioner said the program caused dependency and the poor were “better off” without it.
Now the city urges the needy to seek aid (in languages from Albanian to Yiddish). Neighborhood groups recruit clients at churches and grocery stores, with materials that all but proclaim a civic duty to apply — to “help New York farmers, grocers, and businesses.” There is even a program on Rikers Island to enroll inmates leaving the jail.
“Applying for food stamps is easier than ever,” city posters say.
The same is true nationwide. After a U-turn in the politics of poverty, food stamps, a program once scorned as “welfare,” enjoys broad new support. Following deep cuts in the 1990s, Congress reversed course to expand eligibility, cut red tape and burnish the program’s image, with a special effort to enroll the working poor. These changes, combined with soaring unemployment, have pushed enrollment to record highs, with one in eight Americans now getting aid.
“I’ve seen a remarkable shift,” said Senator Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican and prominent food stamp supporter. “People now see that it’s necessary to have a strong food stamp program.”
The revival began a decade ago, after tough welfare laws chased millions of people from the cash rolls, many into low-wage jobs as fast-food workers, maids, and nursing aides. Newly sympathetic officials saw food stamps as a way to help them. For states, the program had another appeal: the benefits are federally paid.
But support also turned on chance developments, including natural disasters (which showed the program’s value in emergencies) and the rise of plastic benefit cards (which eased stigma and fraud). The program has commercial allies, in farmers and grocery stores, and it got an unexpected boost from President George W. Bush, whose food stamp administrator, Eric Bost, proved an ardent supporter.
“I assure you, food stamps is not welfare,” Mr. Bost said in a recent interview.
Tim Boyle / Getty Images file
The Illinois Link card, an electronic debit-like card used in place of the traditional food stamp, eases the stigma.
Still, some critics see it as welfare in disguise and advocate more restraints.
So far their voices have been muted, unlike in the 1990s when members of Congress likened permissive welfare laws to feeding alligators and wolves. But last month, a Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina, Andre Bauer, criticized food stamps by saying his grandmother “told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed.”
Mr. Bauer, the lieutenant governor, apologized for his phrasing but said, “somebody has to have the gumption to talk about the cycle of dependency.”
The drive to enroll the needy can be seen in the case of Monica Bostick-Thomas, 45, a Harlem widow who works part-time as a school crossing guard. Since her husband died three years ago, she has scraped by on an annual income of about $15,000.
But she did not seek help until she got a call from the Food Bank of New York City, one of the city’s outreach partners. Last year, she balked, doubting she qualified. This year, when the group called again, she agreed to apply. A big woman with a broad smile, Ms. Bostick-Thomas swept into the group’s office a few days later, talking up her daughters’ college degrees and bemoaning the cost of oxtail meat.
“I’m not saying I go hungry,” Ms. Bostick-Thomas said. “But I can’t always eat what I want.”
The worker projected a benefit of $147 a month. “That’s going to help!” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone and applied on my own.”
Since its founding in 1964, the food stamp program has swung between seasons of bipartisan support and conservative attack. George McGovern, a Democrat, and Bob Dole, a Republican, were prominent Senate backers. But Ronald Reagan told stories about the “strapping young buck” who used food stamps to buy a “T-bone steak.”
By the 1990s, the program was swept up in President Bill Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare.” While he meant cash aid, Congressional Republicans labeled food stamps welfare, too. The 1996 law that restricted cash benefits included major cuts in food stamps benefits and eligibility. Some states went further and pushed eligible people away.
But as attention shifted to poor workers, food stamps won new support. Wisconsin’s former governor, Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, boasted of cutting the cash rolls, but advertised the food stamp rise. “Leading the Way to Make Work Pay,” a 2000 news release said.
States eased limits on people with cars and required fewer office visits from people with jobs. The federal government now gives bonuses to states that enroll the most eligible people.
A self-reinforcing cycle kicked in: outreach attracted more workers, and workers built support for outreach. In a given month, nearly 90 percent of food stamp recipients still have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Agriculture. But among families with children, the share working rose to 47 percent in 2008, from 26 percent in the mid-1990s, and the share getting cash welfare fell by two-thirds.
In 2008, the program got an upbeat new name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP. By contrast, cash welfare remains stigmatized, and the rolls have scarcely budged
Nowhere have attitudes swung as far as in New York City, where Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his welfare commissioner, Jason A. Turner, laid siege in the late 1990s to what they called the welfare capital of the world. After bitter fights, a federal judge made the city end delays in handing out food stamp applications. But attitudes remained stern.
“I count food stamps as being part of welfare,” Mr. Turner said at the time. “You’re better off without either one.”
Since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office eight years ago, the rolls have doubled, to 1.6 million people, with most of the increase coming in his second term after critics accused him of neglecting the poor.
He intensified outreach. He reduced paperwork. He hired a new welfare commissioner, Robert Doar, with orders to improve service for the working poor.
“If you’re working, I want to help you, and that’s how the mayor feels,” Mr. Doar said.
Albany made a parallel push to enroll the working poor, setting an explicit goal for caseload growth. “This is all federal money — it drives dollars to local economies,” said Russell Sykes, a senior program official.
But Mr. Turner, now a consultant in Milwaukee, warns that the aid encourages the poor to work less and therefore remain in need. “It’s going to be very difficult with large swaths of the lower middle class tasting the fruits of dependency to be weaned from this,” he said.
The tension between self-reliance and relief can be seen at the food bank’s office in Harlem, where the city lets outreach workers file applications.
Juan Diego Castro, 24, is a college graduate and Americorps volunteer whose immigrant parents warned him “not to be a burden on this country.” He has a monthly stipend of about $2,500 and initially thought food stamps should go to needier people, like the tenants he organizes. “My concern was if I’m taking food stamps and I have a job, is it morally correct?” he said.
But federal law eases eligibility for Americorps members, and a food bank worker urged him and fellow volunteers to apply, arguing that there was enough aid to go around and that use would demonstrate continuing need. “That meeting definitely turned us around,” Mr. Castro said.
While Mr. Castro seemed contemplative, Alba Catano, 44, appeared dejected. A Colombian immigrant, she has spent a dozen years on a night janitorial crew but fell and missed three months of work after knee surgery.
Last November, she limped into a storefront church in Queens, where a food bank worker was taking applications beside the pews.
About her lost wages, she struck a stoic pose, saying her san cocho — Colombian soup — had less meat and more plantains. But her composure cracked when she talked of the effect on her 10-year-old daughter.
“My refrigerator is empty,” Ms. Catano said.
Last month, Ms. Catano was back at work, with a benefit of $170 a month and no qualms about joining 38 million Americans eating with government aid. “I had the feeling that working people were not eligible,” she said. “But then they told me, ‘No, no, the program has improved.’ ”