New York Times welfare reporter Jason DeParle appeared on the NPR program "Fresh Air" hosted by Terry Gross, on Thursday to retell the horror stories that appeared in his lead story last Sunday: "I can't remember a time when I heard people talk so openly about desperate or even illegal things that they were doing in order to make ends meet. They were selling food stamps. They were selling blood. Women talked openly about shoplifting." Even committing "muggings of illegal immigrants." DeParle noted with laughable understatement that such "strategies" can "make them seem unsympathetic."
Asked by the sympathetic Gross about the 1996 welfare reform (which DeParle at the time said risked forcing mothers to "turn to prostitution or the drug trade....abandon their children....camp out on the streets and beg"), DeParle responded with tales of formidable state bureaucracy that won't cut much ice with anyone who has dealt with the DMV:
DEPARLE: Yes, it goes back to what you asked, did it work. It worked in cutting caseloads. But right, those, with a stroke of the pen, Arizona could cut its caseloads in half, but it doesn't mean that those families that lost their cash aid are any better able to support themselves. States are pretty much free to run their programs however they want and to impose any kind of administrative barriers that they choose. So just by changing your administrative procedures, making someone come in twice to sign up, say, instead of once, you can have a big impact on the caseload. And I think a lot of women have, not all, but a lot of women have decided the system has just gotten to be more hassle than it's worth, you know, on a cost-benefit basis. The cash amounts, the benefits have dwindled to such a low amount, and the amount of time that the program requires has gone up. A lot of women have just walked away from it.
GROSS: Now, you write about single mothers who have been dropped from the welfare rolls and what they're trying to do to make ends meet. What are some of the stories that you've heard?
DEPARLE: You know, Terry, I've been interviewing poor single mothers for more than 20 years, and I can't remember a time when I heard people talk so openly about desperate or even illegal things that they were doing in order to make ends meet. They were selling food stamps. They were selling blood. Women talked openly about shoplifting. One woman was quite up front on that she'd been engaging in muggings of illegal immigrants. A lot of women are going back to relationships with, that they had with violent men and were open in saying they were only doing it because they didn't have any other choice. Lots of doubling up. Lots of going to churches, food pantries.
After speaking of the epidemic of food stamp selling, DeParle abruptly pulls back, just in case anyone would use his words to argue that the program is being "widely abused."
DEPARLE: With the limits on cash aid, I think a lot of women have gotten some cash income from their food stamps. I think that's a common phenomenon. But I wouldn't want to leave the impression that I think the food stamp program is being widely abused, misused, isn't needed. In my travels through low-income America, I have, over a period of many years, repeatedly been struck by how often and how hard people struggle to keep food on the table throughout the month. For those of us who never think twice about having enough food, it's hard to imagine what a daily struggle it is for some needy families. So the fact that people are, desperate people are monetizing their food stamp benefit to some degree or other I think is more of a comment on the restrictions of cash aid than it is on the need for food stamps.
I think one reason this group of people hasn't drawn more attention in the downturn is that they tend to have a lot of problems that would make them politically unpopular. Some have addictions. Many have violent boyfriends. A great many have mental health problems. They can be a hard group of people, at least as adults, to feel, for the general public to feel sympathetic toward, particularly during an economic downturn. You know, throughout the past four years we keep hearing about the impact of this economy on the middle class, which of course is important, but it's having a great impact on these people too.
This may be the understatement of the week:
As you can see in this piece, they can resort to strategies that make them seem unsympathetic. This recession has been, and aftermath has been so framed in terms of its impact on the middle class that the poor have largely been pushed out of the spotlight, and you know, the chronically poor, the destitute, the deeply disadvantaged, poor single mothers with mental health problems and homeless problems and addiction problems, I mean they're really in, I think, political oblivion right now.