States Expand Food Stamp Programs
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer
In the war on hunger, a handful of states have made big strides in getting federally funded Food Stamps to more poor families, while others have lagged behind.
Only 60 percent of eligible Americans received Food Stamps nationwide in 2004, but Missouri, Tennessee and Oregon helped buy groceries for more than 80 percent of those with incomes low enough to qualify, according to a new study.
Three other states — California, Wyoming and Massachusetts - came in last, providing Food Stamps to fewer than 50 percent of their poor citizens, according the study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last month.
Food Stamps, an unlimited entitlement program funded by USDA and administered by states, fed some 26 million low-income people this year at a cost of $31 billion, nearly double the federal expenditure on welfare cash assistance programs.
The federally-funded program is the states' primary weapon against hunger, and for those that make it easier for low-income people to apply there is more money.
Tennessee- which has a growing number of people in poverty — retooled its Food Stamps program in 2002 when Congress loosened rules states must follow in determining eligibility.
With a few simplifications to its application process, expanded hours of operation at its welfare offices and an improved outreach program, the Volunteer state boosted Food Stamp participation by more than 20 percent in the last three years.
In addition, Tennessee became the first state to put caseworkers on the road in search of eligible people unaware of the program or unable to come into a welfare office to apply.
Over the past year, seven caseworkers in two counties visited churches, senior centers and public housing projects, signing up thousands of poor people for Food Stamps who otherwise would have missed out on the program.
This year, USDA gave Tennessee a $1 million bonus for exceptional program improvements. Based on a preliminary calculation, the state's participation rate jumped from 83 percent in 2004 to 94 percent in 2005.
USDA determines the value of Food Stamps an individual or family can receive based on income. This year, benefits range from $10 per month for an individual making $26,000 per year (130 percent of the poverty level) to as much as $400 per month for a family of three or more at lower income levels.
States must verify incomes, choosing whether to count assets such as cars, homes and savings accounts. Tennessee and Missouri do not count cars and Oregon eliminated the asset calculation altogether.
By including non-income assets, some states, such as Florida, make it more difficult for low-income seniors and others with assets to qualify.
While USDA penalizes states that make too many errors in calculating benefits, state error rates historically have been low. In the last 10 years, the federal government has encouraged states to expand their programs and Food Stamp budgets have been non-controversial since the program's inception in the mid 1960s.
But for a variety of political and historical reasons, some states make it more difficult than others for people to qualify for the program. In California, New York, Texas and Arizona, Food Stamp applicants must be fingerprinted, a strong deterrent for some applicants, particularly immigrants.
Nebraska's food stamp application runs 26 pages and many other states have similarly lengthy forms, including some that require extensive paperwork to verify incomes.
In most states, Food Stamp applicants must appear twice a year during working hours at a designated welfare office during limited hours, making it difficult for the working poor. In many cases workers choose to forgo the food assistance program rather than lose pay or risk their jobs.
Tennessee and 18 other states last year received USDA waivers allowing them to require only one in-person visit per year and a small number of states soon will be able to sign up people over the telephone and Internet.
In the 1990s, federal Food Stamp rules were tightened and states worried about potential penalties. In addition, welfare reform caused caseworkers who also administered Food Stamps to require additional verification for all welfare programs, complicating the Food Stamp application process.
As a result, Food Stamp use plummeted from a high of 27.5 million people in 1994 to 17.3 million in 2001. In response, USDA loosened qualification rules in 2002, but it was up to states to take advantage of the new flexibility.
The results of the new USDA study indicate some states are making progress expanding their Food Stamps programs, but the pace in most states is slow, welfare advocates say. They urge state leaders to cut red-tape that prevents thousands of low-income workers from taking advantage of the food program, which has little impact on state budgets. States pay about half the bill for administering Food Stamp programs, which last year cost $2.5 billion.