The Quiet “Welfare” Revolution: Resurrecting the Food Stamp Program in the Wake of the 1996 Welfare Law
Cash-assistance programs have long been a focus of both liberal and conservative efforts to make symbolic statements. In this regard, the 1996 dismantlement of federal entitlement to cash assistance was nothing new. Although the 1996 welfare law also made deep cuts to in-kind programs, such as food stamps, these programs had less symbolic significance and hence were lessoften the target of public attacks. This lower political profile gave the Food Stamp Program room to find positive ways to adapt to the key themes that drove the enactment of the 1996 welfare law.
In the 1996 welfare law’s wake, the Food Stamp Program might have emulated the transformation of cash-assistance programs. Alternatively, it might have adopted a defensive posture. Instead, its supporters transformed it from an adjunct to discredited cash welfare programs into a stable support for low-wage workers. This both helped meet a crucial need of low-income families and improved the program’s political appeal. It also demonstrated that the goals of promoting work, devolving authority to states, and safeguarding program integrity can be achieved in positive ways.
The new Food Stamp Program promotes work through incentives more than sanctions. Its incentive structure changed to encourage states to improve access for low-wage workers, and states received flexibility to make those kinds of innovations rather than ones that would destabilize the program’s national benefit structure. Additionally, enforcement efforts deemphasized minor accounting issues having little bearing on the program’s integrity. Ultimately, these efforts were so successful that President Bush and conservative Republican senators pushed substantial benefit increases through Congress. This success may be a model for the survival and expansion of other programs.