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Associated Press

Changing attitudes

How food stamps morphed from temporary relief to permanent entitlement

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

The readiness of many to think of government welfare as the first line of defense against poverty shows a huge cultural shift. When E. W. Bakke interviewed 2,000 heads of families in New Haven in the 1930s, the comment by one accountant turned ditch-digger exemplified the frequent refusal to be dependent: "I'd rather stay out in that ditch the rest of my life than take one cent of direct relief."

The political impact of these beliefs was that whenever New Deal proponents emphasized welfare programs for those who could work, animosity toward Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal grew. On the other hand, "temporary" programs could be acceptable, since the economic emergency was seen as a plague that eventually would run its course. New York's prototypical relief program of the 1930s, the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, suggested through its double emphasis that subsidies would be short-lived. Franklin Roosevelt called his nationalization of the idea the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).

Some leaders within the Roosevelt administration also retained the older values and saw programs only as "temporary." Bureau of the Budget Director Lewis Douglas, for example, warned emphatically that "thousands would settle into government-made jobs" if programs were long-lasting, and the result would be long-term economic collapse.

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Douglas argued that any program given time to sink roots "might become so great that it might be impossible to end it." U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran told a Senate committee that "self-reliance, the satisfaction of work, the joy of acquisition, the sense of equality, the opportunity of leading a normal family life" were vital to good health.

Roosevelt himself acknowledged the danger of welfare programs becoming "a habit with the country." In November 1933, he said, "When any man or woman goes on a dole something happens to them mentally and the quicker they are taken off the dole the better it is for them the rest of their lives." Early in 1935 Roosevelt argued, "We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination."

Later that year Roosevelt noted, "In this business of relief we are dealing with properly self-respecting Americans to whom a mere dole outrages every instinct of individual independence. Most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, in this case honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral disintegration. We propose to build that barrier high."

Welfare reform in the 1990s was an attempt to recover these 1930s attitudes. It was successful for a while. The food stamp participation rate-the percentage of those eligible who enrolled-had jumped from 31 percent in 1976 to 75 percent in 1994, but it fell to 52 percent by the end of the decade. The number of food stamp recipients fell from 28 million to 17 million. A Rockefeller Institute study of New Yorkers showed that two-thirds of the nearly 700,000 people who left welfare during the late 1990s found jobs, and only one in five went back on welfare.

By 2000 the results were clear, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted about changes in Ohio: "Many of the 111,000 families leaving welfare are doing so because family members have found work. ... A survey conducted for the state found that a year after leaving welfare, 66 percent of the people were employed, averaging 38 hours a week at $8.65 an hour."

That year President Bill Clinton himself bragged in a speech to the Independent Insurance Agents of America: " If I had said ... we'll cut the welfare rolls in half, you wouldn't have believed that. ... We know now, because of the success our country has had, that if we work together and we set common goals we can achieve them." That year also a Los Angeles Daily News writer asked the right question: "In terms of measuring compassion, which is better: encouraging the California woman to turn to welfare or empowering her to find the independence that she had forgotten she could achieve?"

Of course, an unemployment rate lingering at 9 percent makes job-finding harder than one at 6 percent. A loss of manufacturing jobs also hurts those without skills prized in offices rather than factory floors. But a change in attitudes, and not only a change in material circumstances, drives increased food stamp enrollment.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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