Monday, April 23, 2012

Welfare reform 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. They've 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."

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."

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