GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Our cover story today: the newly poor and how food stamps have become the new welfare. And a big reason why is because of a deal struck between President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress back in 1996.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Today, we are ending welfare as we know it, but I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began.
RAZ: 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.
JASON DEPARLE: What we decided is cash assistance is welfare and that's bad, but we decided food aid is nutritional assistance and that's good, and we made that program much, much easier to get on.
RAZ: That's New York Times reporter Jason DeParle. He covers poverty, and he's talking about food stamps. Since the economic crisis that started in 2007, 18 million Americans have had to apply for food aid, and it's become a political target for some critics of the program like Newt Gingrich.
NEWT GINGRICH: No president has put more people on food stamps than Obama.
RAZ: Now, that's not technically true - more people went on food stamps under President George W. Bush. But what is true, says Jason DeParle, is that more Americans depend on food assistance now than at any other time in modern history - almost 50 million Americans or one in six people.
DEPARLE: The question is whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing. Some people would say, look, this is bad. Dependency is on the rise because people are on food stamps. 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.
If it wasn't for the food stamp program, there would have been much, much more hardship in the United States. Poverty would have risen twice as much. It's been a vital form of support for many people.
VICKI JONES: OK. Well, when you come in the front door, this is my living room/bedroom.
RAZ: This is Vicki Jones. She's giving a tour of her one bedroom apartment just outside Chicago where she lives with her 7-year-old son Jack. Vicki is studying to become a chiropractor.
JONES: I'm in school from eight to four almost every single day, and then I come home, I take care of my little boy, get him a healthy dinner. You know, he does homework, get him off to bed, and then I study.
RAZ: A few weeks ago, she decided to write about her situation for the Chicago Sun-Times.
JONES: Long story short, my marriage fell apart. We ended up losing our house, and we ended up declaring bankruptcy and divorcing. And so now I'm a single mom, and I need to feed my son. I need to feed myself. I applied for food stamps a few years ago, and I truly believe that at some point, I will be able to pay this back and to help people in my situation who can't afford good medical care.
RAZ: It sounds like when you're talking about the decision to accept food stamps, you almost sound apologetic for it, almost like you have to justify it. And I wonder why.
JONES: I guess there is part of me that says this wasn't supposed to be my life. I did so well in high school. I went to college. So that was a hard pill to swallow, just having to step back and go, I need help. I can't do this myself.
RAZ: How much does it get you every month?
JONES: It's 367 a month.
RAZ: And is that enough to pay for your food?
JONES: It's really not much. When you break it down to a 30-day month, you know, that's $12 a day to feed two people three meals a day. So it's not a lot of money, especially if you're trying to, you know, give your son healthy fruits and vegetables, and an avocado costs $1.50 and I've got approximately $2 a meal.
RAZ: You wrote that you had hidden this from your family and your friends. And even when you went to the grocery store, you were careful about the way you used the card. Why did you hide it from everybody?
JONES: I just felt like there was a stigma attached with being on food stamps. And the reason I wrote the article was because I saw a posting on Facebook comparing feeding wild animals to giving people food stamps, and it just kind of was like a sucker punch in the stomach. And it was from someone who had been a good friend of mine, and I thought she has no idea that the person she's talking about and comparing to a wild animal is her friend. And I thought I need to speak out for the other people out there like me who are just trying to make ends meet and trying to make a better life.
RAZ: That's Vicki Jones. She lives just outside Chicago. Food stamps have now replaced cash assistance as the most common form of welfare in America today. Ten times more Americans receive food aid than those who get cash welfare.
Now, back in the mid-1990s, Ron Haskins was an aide to congressional Republicans, and he was one of the architects of welfare reform. And he argues that back then, the government faced a huge problem.
RON HASKINS: Welfare dependency. There were just too many people that became dependent on welfare. For example, a very good study at Harvard showed that 65 percent of the people on the rolls at any given moment would eventually be on the rolls for eight years or more. And that's the kind of thing that Republicans were concerned about, that people were literally learning to depend on welfare and not learning to support themselves.
So that was the overall goal of the bill. And that is why probably the most important actual change in the statute was ending the entitlement. Under previous law, people that met the qualifications for welfare were - had a legal right to get the cash benefit, and Republicans said, no, that's wrong. They should not have a legal right. They have to do something in return, namely they have to work.
RAZ: So it made it much more difficult to get that cash payment. And the result was that the welfare rolls for the cash payment system declined dramatically. Would you characterize it as a success?
HASKINS: Yes, I would characterize it as a success. The group that's most likely to go on welfare are never-married mothers. For never-married mothers between roughly the mid-'90s, '95 or so, around the time of welfare reform, and 2000, the percentage of never-married mothers who worked increased by 40 percent - completely unheard of. And since employment increased so dramatically and poverty fell like a rock for female-headed families, which is a group that was involved in welfare reform, yes, welfare reform was definitely successful. There were problems, but it was a great success.
RAZ: Looking at it from our perspective now in the middle of this economy, as you know, critics of that welfare reform have said, well, it was great in good economic times, but now it's different.
RAZ: And it's actually causing major problems.
RAZ: Would you agree with that?
HASKINS: I would partly agree with that, yes. The employment rate for single moms and especially for never-married moms is actually still higher than it was before welfare reform, but they have trouble finding jobs. The ratio of job openings to job seekers is as bad as it's ever been. Our unemployment rate is still above 8 percent. It's a big problem. And we just did not want to go back to a system where people would be on welfare year after year after year and not have to worry about anything. They have to still be conscious about work and actively look for work. That's the kind of system we need, and that has not worked well during a downturn.
RAZ: That's Ron Haskins. He helped Republicans craft welfare reform back in 1996.
When President Clinton signed off on it, 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.
PETER EDELMAN: And it turns out the real proof of what a really bad public policy this is, is in the recession.
RAZ: How so?
EDELMAN: Because when people went for help during the recession, they could get food stamps and it turned out they could not get welfare. It's as simple as that. So food stamp participation went up from a little over 30 million before the recession up to 46 million people now. Now, again, these benefits are not huge. And I'm just amazed at the demagoguery that goes on.
It pays - the food stamps, if you have no other income, it pays about a third of the poverty line. And, in fact, we have six million people in the country, shockingly, whose only income is from food stamps because welfare is basically gone. And because there's no legal right to welfare - there were about 3.9 million people on welfare, shrunk from the 14 million of the mid-'90s when the recession started - it only went up in the recession with all the need that was out there to about 4.5 million. So that tiny increase versus the food stamp - the food stamps you have a right to get it; welfare you don't.
RAZ: Tell me about how the states have played a role in diminishing the number of people who can receive cash payments, because my understanding is the states get a block grant from the federal government, and in many cases, they can decide what they want to do with that money. They don't have to spend all of it on welfare payments.
EDELMAN: That is certainly true. And so the message that came with it back in 1996 was to get people off welfare in any way. If they got a job, that's fine. But if they didn't, that was OK too. And every state could set its own rules, including not serving anybody they didn't want to serve. Nineteen states have less than 20 percent of their poor children getting cash assistance on welfare. And as a consequence, we have this huge increase in the number of deeply poor people.
RAZ: So how do you explain the argument that some have made that poverty has actually decreased in America since that time?
EDELMAN: Poverty has not decreased. They're making that up. There are 46 million people who are poor right now, and some of that is from the recession. But starting in the year 2000, the poverty numbers went up steadily almost every year, and then another big jump starting in 2007 and 2008.
RAZ: What would you do now, I mean, if you were advising President Obama?
EDELMAN: Number one, we have to hold the line on these programs. Congressman Paul Ryan is proposing a budget that is reverse Robin Hood. Robin Hood would turn over in his grave. That's going to add over $5 trillion over 10 years to the wealthiest people in this country who most surely don't need it. More tax cuts. And take about the same amount of money away from the lowest income people. It's astonishing.
So if we understand that food stamps is an enormous policy success, that the earned income tax credit is very, very important, that people need those things because of the way in which the economy works generally, on top of the fact that for real people, the recession is still there.
RAZ: Peter Edelman teaches law at Georgetown University. His forthcoming book is called "So Rich, So Poor: Why It's Hard to End Poverty in America." You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.