A fierce critic of welfare reform got another chance to make a front-page plug for food stamps on Sunday. "Living on Nothing but Food Stamps," a top-of-the-fold story cowritten by veteran welfare reporter (and fierce critic of reform) Jason DeParle, was heralded with a sentimental black-and-white photo of a weeping mother being comforted by one of her daughters.
Datelined Cape Coral, Fla., the story by DeParle and Robert Gebeloff detailed the plight of Isabel Bermudez, who went from a six-figure income and nice house to having only food stamps as income:
After an improbable rise from the Bronx projects to a job selling Gulf Coast homes, Isabel Bermudez lost it all to an epic housing bust - the six-figure income, the house with the pool and the investment property.
Now, as she papers the county with résumés and girds herself for rejection, she is supporting two daughters on an income that inspires a double take: zero dollars in monthly cash and a few hundred dollars in food stamps.
With food-stamp use at a record high and surging by the day, Ms. Bermudez belongs to an overlooked subgroup that is growing especially fast: recipients with no cash income.
DeParle hinted "tougher welfare laws" were to blame:
Their numbers were rising before the recession as tougher welfare laws made it harder for poor people to get cash aid, but they have soared by about 50 percent over the past two years. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.
Some of DeParle's other victims aren't quite as sympathetic as the single mom Bermudez:
A strapping man who once made a living throwing fastballs, William Trapani, 53, left his dreams on the minor league mound and his front teeth in prison, where he spent nine years for selling cocaine. Now he sleeps at a rescue mission, repairs bicycles for small change, and counts $200 in food stamps as his only secure support.
"I've been out looking for work every day - there's absolutely nothing," he said.
A grandmother whose voice mail message urges callers to "have a blessed good day," Wanda Debnam, 53, once drove 18-wheelers and dreamed of selling real estate. But she lost her job at Starbucks this year and moved in with her son in nearby Lehigh Acres. Now she sleeps with her 8-year-old granddaughter under a poster of the Jonas Brothers and uses her food stamps to avoid her daughter-in-law's cooking.
DeParle was also guilty of the same labeling disparity he showed in a previous story cheerleading for food stamps. DeParle termed the left wing group Food Research and Action Center merely a "Washington advocacy group," while a Republican congressman who disagreed with FRAC was a "conservative critic."
But others say the lack of cash support shows the safety net is torn. The main cash welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has scarcely expanded during the recession; the rolls are still down about 75 percent from their 1990s peak. A different program, unemployment insurance, has rapidly grown, but still omits nearly half the unemployed. Food stamps, easier to get, have become the safety net of last resort.
"The food-stamp program is being asked to do too much," said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group. "People need income support."
The expansion of the food-stamp program, which will spend more than $60 billion this year, has so far enjoyed bipartisan support. But it does have conservative critics who worry about the costs and the rise in dependency.
"This is craziness," said Representative John Linder, a Georgia Republican who is the ranking minority member of a House panel on welfare policy. "We're at risk of creating an entire class of people, a subset of people, just comfortable getting by living off the government."
Back on July 28, 1996, DeParle wrote an article on welfare reform accusing President Bill Clinton of "seeking re-election with a bill that begrudges poor infants their Pampers." DeParle made a series of dire predictions of how the poor would fare under the legislation, none of which came to pass.