Fewer To Get Food Stamps Under New Rules, Critics Say

 

Under proposed new rules, the federal government risks cutting more families from the food stamp program, which directly contradicts the Clinton administration's oft-stated goal of increasing aid to the poor, critics of the rules change say.

The rules would let states change or drop procedures originally designed to safeguard the rights of food stamp recipients. States would have less obligation to inform recipients of their rights under the program, and they could increase the burden on families to prove that they are eligible.

As a result, families would leave the rolls sooner and more families would have to wait longer to receive benefits, critics say.

A number of advocacy groups have lined up to oppose the rules changes, including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Food Research and Action Council and America's Second Harvest.

"We don't want clients denied for procedural reasons rather than substantive reasons," said Doug O'Brien of America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest network of food banks. "They may have unintentionally taken away some rights that were hard fought over the last two decades."

Advocates describe the changes as more the result of bureaucratic lethargy and mixed objectives than a desire by the Clinton administration to shrink the size of the food stamp program. It has taken the Department of Agriculture four years to write the new rules and in that time food stamp policy has undergone a dramatic change.

"These are quite unintended consequences," O'Brien said. "They have taken a hatchet to the regulations rather than a surgical knife."

In fact, in a highly publicized initiative, the White House and the U.S. Agriculture Department are now pressuring states to reach out to eligible families and to make sure those who stop receiving cash assistance are not summarily denied food stamps.

"The position we are taking (is that) we are bending over backwards to try to accommodate the recipients," said Susan Acker, spokesperson for the Food and Nutrition Service at USDA.

The rules changes mark the first major amendments to the food stamp program in 22 years. The regulations delineate how states should implement changes legislated by Congress as part of welfare reform.

The 1996 welfare law denied food stamps to most legal immigrants and limited the amount of time adults without children can collect assistance. In addition to codifying those changes, the new rules allow more recipients who own cars to receive food stamps, a change advocates call important.

But whereas regulators were initially concerned about stemming welfare's rising costs and increasing the flexibility of the states, they are now concerned that states have denied families food assistance unnecessarily, and in some cases, illegally.

Since Congress overhauled the national welfare system in 1996, more than seven million people have left the food stamp rolls, a decline that far outstrips the national drop in poverty. At the same time, many more families have turned to local food pantries for groceries.

Today, about 17 million people rely on food stamps, a drop of 28 percent since 1996. The average benefit is $72/person per month, doled out by the states in the form of paper coupons or electronic benefits that can be exchanged at grocery stores for certain items.

Advocates say dozens of provisions have been changed for the worst. Most involve the removal of language that explicitly stated recipients' rights. Under one clause, states will now be allowed to call recipients in for 'recertification,' or to make sure they are poor enough, as often as once a month. In another instance, a provision has been removed that called for the hanging of posters within welfare offices to notify recipients that they have the right to receive food stamps within 30 days of their first appearance.

The start of the 30-day period is important because it often takes parents many days and several trips to the welfare office to complete their food stamp applications. In some states, food stamp applications can run 27 pages. Additionally, increasing the number of visits recipients must make to the welfare office induces many to leave the program.

USDA officials said they prefer not to comment on proposed regulations and they emphasized that the rules are still under consideration.

Interested parties had until May 1 to respond. Final regulations are expected later this summer.

 
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