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.
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.”