Times Pleased 'Stigma' of Food Stamps Fading

"Food Stamp Use Soars Across U.S., and Stigma Fades," cheers a Times headline over Sunday's big lead story, cowritten by fierce welfare reform opponent (and Times reporter) Jason DeParle, who accused Bill Clinton in 1996 of "seeking re-election with a bill that begrudges poor infants their Pampers."
Reporters Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff collaborated on Sunday's big 2,700-word lead story, in which the Times discovering to its evident pleasure that even red states citizens are using food stamps, as the "stigma" of government welfare fades. Note the cheerful headline: "Food Stamp Use Soars Across U.S., and Stigma Fades."

Reporter DeParle might be feeling a bit vindicated; back in 1996 he assailed President Clinton for signing off on a welfare reform bill, "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 that came to pass.

On Sunday, DeParle and his coauthor assured readers that a wide cross-section of Americans were signing on to tax-funded food:

With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.

Virtually all have incomes near or below the federal poverty line, but their eclectic ranks testify to the range of people struggling with basic needs. They include single mothers and married couples, the newly jobless and the chronically poor, longtime recipients of welfare checks and workers whose reduced hours or slender wages leave pantries bare.

While the numbers have soared during the recession, the path was cleared in better times when the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program's stigma, calling food stamps "nutritional aid" instead of welfare, and made it easier to apply. That bipartisan effort capped an extraordinary reversal from the 1990s, when some conservatives tried to abolish the program, Congress enacted large cuts and bureaucratic hurdles chased many needy people away.
....

The program's growing reach can be seen in a corner of southwestern Ohio where red state politics reign and blue-collar workers have often called food stamps a sign of laziness
. But unemployment has soared, and food stamp use in a six-county area outside Cincinnati has risen more than 50 percent.

Besides some gloating over red-state hypocrisy on food stamp use, there's labeling bias, as DeParle and Gebeloff failed to pin an ideological label on a left-wing group, but found a Heritage Foundation scholar had a "conservative" following on Capitol Hill.

By the time the recession began, in December 2007, "the whole message around this program had changed," said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington group that has supported food stamp expansions. "The general pitch was, 'This program is here to help you.' "

Now nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid - 28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites. Benefits average about $130 a month for each person in the household, but vary with shelter and child care costs.

Around paragraph 25, DeParle and Gebeloff finally, briefly addressed criticisms:

In the promotion of the program, critics see a sleight of hand.

"Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it's really not different from cash welfare," said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, whose views have a following among conservatives on Capitol Hill. "Food stamps is quasi money."

Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance. "The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty," he said.

The richest counties are often where aid is growing fastest, although from a small base. In 2007, Forsyth County, outside Atlanta, had the highest household income in the South. (One author dubbed it "Whitopia.") Food stamp use there has more than doubled.

This is the first recession in which a majority of the poor in metropolitan areas live in the suburbs, giving food stamps new prominence there. Use has grown by half or more in dozens of suburban counties from Boston to Seattle, including such bulwarks of modern conservatism as California's Orange County, where the rolls are up more than 50 percent.

Tom Blumer also responded to the story in detail at NewsBusters: