Long-time welfare-beat reporter Jason DeParle took yet another victory lap in his Thursday story on how food stamps are losing their stigma in a piece co-written with Robert Gebeloff: "Once Stigmatized, Food Stamps Find Acceptance."
These same two reporters wrote a national version of the same story with virtually the same headline less than three months ago, which appeared on the front page November 29, 2009: "Food Stamp Use Soars Across U.S., and Stigma Fades." Both stories are apart of the paper's occasional series "The Safety Net."
The triumphal headline and DeParle's accompanying attitude of barely concealed vindication is no surprise, given his long-time opposition to welfare reform, noted most bluntly in a sour and alarmist piece he penned as a Times reporter, opposing the passage of Clinton-era welfare reform in the July 28, 1996 Times Week in Review: "Get a Job - The New Contract With America's Poor." DeParle warned in that 1996 piece:
The risk is that it may also end poverty as we know it. By making it even worse....But the weight of the evidence suggests that most either cannot or will not lift themselves from poverty in an economy where, for more than two decades, the bottom has been dropping out for low-skilled workers. In a nation that already has the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world the poor may indeed get poorer. And more numerous and desperate as well...If he signs the measure as it is, President Clinton will appear to have fulfilled his famous pledge about ending welfare. In truth, he will have abandoned the vision that animated the slogan. Having sought office with the aim of a redefined social contract - health care for every American - he will be seeking re-election with a bill that begrudges poor infants their Pampers....No doubt the harsh reality of an empty stomach will cause some people to do better. Some may indeed get jobs and marry, as [Fla. Rep. Clay] Shaw predicts. Others may turn to prostitution or the drug trade. Or cling to abusive boyfriends. Or have more abortions. Or abandon their children. Or camp out on the streets and beg.
None of those dire predictions came to pass, of course, but DeParle is still cranking out pieces on the healing wonders of the U.S. food stamp program. In Thursday's edition, DeParle and Gebeloff (whose role at the Times seems to be assisting other reporters) wrote:
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.
DeParle briefly mentioned the 1996 welfare reform law, but not his previous predictions of societal chaos:
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.
DeParle relayed this infuriating anecdote without comment:
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.
If you have to pester someone to sign up for a program, then how much true "need" (as opposed to bureaucratic feather-bedding) does that signify?