TheDC Investigation: Universities encouraging students to receive welfare benefits

Many American colleges and universities are steering their students toward a new source of “financial aid”: food stamps.

In Oregon, for instance, both Portland State and Pacific University encourage their students to apply for food stamps. “Many students are surprised to learn that they may be eligible for Food Stamps,” explains Portland State’s website.

This may be a little surprising given that food stamps were created to help struggling poor people, not heavily-subsidized and frequently-idle college kids. But have no fear, assures Portland State: “Being a college student is hard work! Not just academically, but financially too.”

Far from framing the decision to apply for food stamps as a last resort, the university’s website makes taking government handouts sound like a moral imperative. “As tuition increases, many students struggle to make ends meet,” the site explains. “Sometimes grants and loans don’t stretch far enough and students are forced to work low-paying jobs. For some, this still is not enough to get by. Having to choose between buying groceries or a $125 textbook is a tough decision that many students have been forced to make at some point in their college careers. As if taking a full class load wasn’t stressful enough!”

On its website, Odessa College in Texas describes food stamps as a form of “financial assistance.” Bellingham Technical College in Washington State walks its students through the process of applying for food stamps step-by-step.

In Iowa, Des Moines State University lists food stamps information on its financial aid page, while Iowa State University recommends that students struggling with food costs go on the dole.

Cornell University, meanwhile, has assembled a handy instruction sheet for students hoping to get federal food assistance.

Encouraging middle class kids to sign up for welfare may seem like a quick way to overburden government services (not to mention foster dependency), but the federal government itself appears to be in favor of it. In 2008, the Department of Agriculture renamed the food stamps program, part of a rebranding effort designed to remove the stigma attached to government aid. Food stamps are now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and accepting them isn’t supposed to be embarrassing.

[SEE: What you can buy with food stamps]

The state of California is taking particularly aggressive steps to convince its citizens to go on welfare. In October, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration announced plans to rename its food stamps program CalFresh. “One of my highest priorities is the health and well-being of our children and all Californians, and access to healthy food options is a great beginning to achieving this,” Schwarzenegger explained in an October 23 release. “My Administration is committed to encouraging all eligible Californians to take part in this program and take advantage of these healthy benefits.”

The new image campaign is working. Almost 14 percent of the entire U.S. population now receives some sort of government aid. The use of food stamps, in particular, has grown dramatically. There are at least 6 million more Americans receiving government food assistance this year than last, for a total of more than 42 million people.