How It Is Changing

For many, using food stamps has been a confession of failure.  Only the pressure of feeding their families drove them to accept the help it offered.  But now the program is turning out to be more and more successful.  According to The New York Times:  “a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.” (See, “Across U.S., Food Stamp Use Soars and Stigma Fades.”)

What is bringing about the change in social attitudes?

For one thing, of course, poverty is more widespread now, more inclusive.  Blaming the unemployed gets harder to do when there are so many of them.  Moreover, people now have the banks and hedge fund managers to blame for the economic mess they are in.

But also there has been a substantial effort to repackage the program.  Before the recession began, “the Bush administration led a campaign to erase the program’s stigma, calling food stamps ‘nutritional aid’ instead of welfare….  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.’ ”

Some conservatives, like Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, resist this effort to re-label and recast the program.  Calling it “camouflage,” he adds,  “it’s really not different from cash welfare….  Food stamps is quasi money.”

But government efforts seem to be gradually paying off.  Interviews with those receiving nutritional aid reveal the mixed feelings and conflicts of those who are navigating their way through this shift in public attitude. “It’s embarrassing,” said Mr. Dawson, 29, a taciturn man with a wispy goatee who is so uneasy about the monthly benefit of $300 that he has not told his parents. “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now.”

Others express how much it is also a matter of identity:  “I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids.”  A mother, who said she once considered herself “middle class,” spoke of her desire to put an occasional pot roast on the table.  A father figured out a compromise: While “some people put piles of steaks in their carts,” he will not use the government’s money for luxuries like coffee or soda. “To me, that’s just morally wrong,” he said.

And, no doubt, it helps that this process of redrawing the categories of poverty and class has been going on for some time.  According to The Times, a recent study found that “half of Americans receive food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20.”

Step by step, choice by choice, people are struggling to maintain their identities and sustain their pride while adapting to our new economic realities.  It is a slow and painful process.