J. Scott Applewhite /AP
President Clinton prepares to sign legislation overhauling America's welfare system at the White House Rose Garden on Aug. 22, 1996. Today, the ranks of the nation's poor have swelled to a record 46.2 million — nearly 1 in 6 Americans — as the prolonged pain of the recession leaves millions still struggling and out of work.
Welfare changes in the 1990s helped slash cash benefit rolls, yet the use of food stamps is soaring today. About 15 percent of Americans use food stamps. The program has become what some call the new welfare.
A big reason why is a deal struck between President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress in 1996. At that time, the number of Americans who received cash payments — what's often thought of as welfare — was at an all-time high.
The Clinton overhaul made it much harder to qualify for those payments, and today the welfare rolls are down 70 percent, but that's only if you define welfare in one way.
"We decided cash assistance is welfare and that's bad, but we decided food aid is nutritional assistance and that's good," says New York Times reporter Jason DeParle. "We made [the food stamp] program much easier to get on."
DeParle, who covers poverty for the Times, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that 18 million Americans have had to apply for food aid since the economic crisis began.
The program has become a political talking point for some critics: Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich began referring to President Obama as the "food stamp president," and said "no president has put more people on food stamps than Obama."
It's not technically true, and in fact more people went on food stamps under President George W. Bush. What is true, DeParle says, is that more Americans depend on food assistance now than at any other time in modern history: 1 in 6 people, or almost 50 million Americans. The question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
"Some people would say it is bad because dependency is on the rise because people are on food stamps," DeParle says. "I think there's also a strong case to be made in the opposite direction, that this is a safety net program that has responded to the worst economy since the Great Depression."
The New Poor
Vicki Jones lives with her 7-year-old son, Jack, in a one-bedroom apartment just outside Chicago. She's studying to become a chiropractor and goes to school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. almost every day. Then she comes home, takes care of her son and studies.
A few weeks ago, she decided to write about her situation in the Chicago Sun-Times. In short, she says her marriage fell apart, and they lost their house and had to declare bankruptcy.
"I'm a single mom, and I needed to be able to take care of my son," she tells NPR's Raz. "I needed to feed myself and my son, [so] I applied for food stamps a few years ago. I truly believe at some point I can pay this back and re-contribute to society and help people in my situation who can't afford medical care."
Jones sounds almost apologetic when she talks about the decision to accept food stamps, as if she has to justify taking the assistance.
"I guess there's part of me that says [that] this wasn't supposed to be my life and story," she says.
Jones did well in high school and then went to college, she says. She had envisioned the big house and a fancy car, but that's not how it worked out for her.
"That was a hard pill to swallow, just having to step back and say, 'I need help. I can't do this by myself,' " she says.
Jones gets $367 per month in assistance for food, which breaks down to about $12 a day to feed two people three meals each day. That's not a lot of money, especially if you want your child to eat healthy fruits and vegetables, she says.
"An avocado costs $1.50, and I've got approximately $2 a meal," she says. Little as it is, without the food aid, Jones says, she isn't sure how she would get by each month.
Jones decided to write the article after she saw a posting on Facebook from someone who had been a good friend comparing feeding wild animals to giving people food stamps.
"It was a sucker punch in the stomach," she says. "I thought she has no idea that the person she's talking about and comparing to a wild animal is her friend. I [needed] to speak up for others out there who are just trying to make ends meet and just trying for a better life."
The '90s Welfare Overhaul
Food stamps have now replaced cash assistance as the most common form of welfare in America. Ten times more Americans receive food aid than those who get cash welfare.
In the mid-1990s, Ron Haskins was an aide to congressional Republicans and was one of the architects of the new welfare legislation. He argues that back then, there was no other alternative because of one giant problem: welfare dependency.
"There were just too many people that became dependent on welfare," Haskins tells NPR's Raz. "For example, a Harvard study showed that 65 percent of people on the [welfare] rolls at any given moment would be on the rolls for eight years or more."
The overall goal of the bill, Haskins says, was to eliminate that dependency on welfare so that the people on it would learn to support themselves. He says the most important change in the statute was ending welfare as an entitlement program.
"Republicans said ... [recipients] have to do something in return — namely, they have to work," he says.
Haskins characterizes the bill as a success, especially for never-married mothers, a group he says was involved in the welfare overhaul. From 1995 to 2000, the number of never-married mothers who went to work increased 40 percent, he says.
"Poverty fell like a rock," he says. "There were problems, but [the welfare overhaul] was a great success."
Poverty On The Rise
When Clinton signed off on the legislation, one of his top officials, Peter Edelman, resigned in protest. He warned that it would leave the most vulnerable Americans — people living far below the poverty level — even worse off.
"The real proof of what a really bad public policy this was is in the recession," Edelman,who now teaches law at Georgetown University, tells Raz. "When people went for help during the recession, they could get food stamps and it turned out they couldn't get welfare ... so food stamp participation went up from 30 million before the recession up to 46 million."
The food stamp benefits are not huge, he says, and if you have no other income, they equal only about a third of the poverty line.
"We have 6 million people in the country whose only income is food stamps because welfare is basically gone," he says.
Edelman, author of the new book So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America, says those who say poverty has decreased are wrong. While some of the 46 million poor are from the current recession, he says, poverty has been on the rise since 2000.
"Starting in the year 2000, the poverty numbers went up steadily almost every year, and then another big jump in 2007 and 2008," he says.
If he were advising President Obama on poverty today, Edelman says, he would tell him to hold the line against proposals like Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, which he calls "reverse Robin Hood."
"It's going to add over $5 trillion over 10 years to the wealthiest people in this country ... and take about the same amount of money away from the lowest income people," he says. "For real people, the recession is still there."