The same is true nationwide. After a U-turn in the politics of poverty, food stamps, a program once scorned as “welfare,” enjoys broad new support. Following deep cuts in the 1990s, Congress reversed course to expand eligibility, cut red tape and burnish the program’s image, with a special effort to enroll the working poor. These changes, combined with soaring unemployment, have pushed enrollment to record highs, with one in eight Americans now getting aid.
“I’ve seen a remarkable shift,” said Senator Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican and prominent food stamp supporter. “People now see that it’s necessary to have a strong food stamp program.”
The revival began a decade ago, after tough welfare laws chased millions of people from the cash rolls, many into low-wage jobs as fast-food workers, maids, and nursing aides. Newly sympathetic officials saw food stamps as a way to help them. For states, the program had another appeal: the benefits are federally paid.
But support also turned on chance developments, including natural disasters (which showed the program’s value in emergencies) and the rise of plastic benefit cards (which eased stigma and fraud). The program has commercial allies, in farmers and grocery stores, and it got an unexpected boost from President George W. Bush, whose food stamp administrator, Eric Bost, proved an ardent supporter.
“I assure you, food stamps is not welfare,” Mr. Bost said in a recent interview.
Still, some critics see it as welfare in disguise and advocate more restraints.
So far their voices have been muted, unlike in the 1990s when members of Congress likened permissive welfare laws to feeding alligators and wolves. But last month, a Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina, Andre Bauer, criticized food stamps by saying his grandmother “told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed.”
Mr. Bauer, the lieutenant governor, apologized for his phrasing but said, “somebody has to have the gumption to talk about the cycle of dependency.”
The drive to enroll the needy can be seen in the case of Monica Bostick-Thomas, 45, a Harlem widow who works part-time as a school crossing guard. Since her husband died three years ago, she has scraped by on an annual income of about $15,000.
But she did not seek help until she got a call from the Food Bank of New York City, one of the city’s outreach partners. Last year, she balked, doubting she qualified. This year, when the group called again, she agreed to apply. A big woman with a broad smile, Ms. Bostick-Thomas swept into the group’s office a few days later, talking up her daughters’ college degrees and bemoaning the cost of oxtail meat.
“I’m not saying I go hungry,” Ms. Bostick-Thomas said. “But I can’t always eat what I want.”
The worker projected a benefit of $147 a month. “That’s going to help!” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone and applied on my own.”
Since its founding in 1964, the food stamp program has swung between seasons of bipartisan support and conservative attack. George McGovern, a Democrat, and Bob Dole, a Republican, were prominent Senate backers. But Ronald Reagan told stories about the “strapping young buck” who used food stamps to buy a “T-bone steak.”
By the 1990s, the program was swept up in President Bill Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare.” While he meant cash aid, Congressional Republicans labeled food stamps welfare, too. The 1996 law that restricted cash benefits included major cuts in food stamps benefits and eligibility. Some states went further and pushed eligible people away.
But as attention shifted to poor workers, food stamps won new support. Wisconsin’s former governor, Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, boasted of cutting the cash rolls, but advertised the food stamp rise. “Leading the Way to Make Work Pay,” a 2000 news release said.
States eased limits on people with cars and required fewer office visits from people with jobs. The federal government now gives bonuses to states that enroll the most eligible people.
A self-reinforcing cycle kicked in: outreach attracted more workers, and workers built support for outreach. In a given month, nearly 90 percent of food stamp recipients still have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Agriculture. But among families with children, the share working rose to 47 percent in 2008, from 26 percent in the mid-1990s, and the share getting cash welfare fell by two-thirds.
In 2008, the program got an upbeat new name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP. By contrast, cash welfare remains stigmatized, and the rolls have scarcely budged.