States Push to Get Food to Needy
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer
This year, soaring food and energy prices and lost jobs have led a record number of people to enter the program - more than in any year since the program began in 1964.But even as the number of applicants spirals, states are reaching out to millions more who may not realize they are eligible or are reluctant to participate.
Only 65 percent of Americans with incomes low enough to qualify for Food Stamps seek help, leaving many who either go hungry or end up relying on other federal and state assistance programs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program.
With strapped budgets, states have an incentive to use as much of the open-ended federal food aid program as possible, because none of the money comes out of their pockets. USDA funds 100 per cent of the benefits, while states pay a little more than half of administrative costs.
Spending $36 billion, the Food Stamp program is expected to serve 28 million people nationwide in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2008, an 8 percent increase in participation over the year before, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
"It's smart for states to promote Food Stamps, because that and unemployment checks often are enough to delay the need for other types of public assistance - such as welfare and Medicaid - that put pressure on state budgets," said poverty expert Sheri Steisel at the National Conference of State Legislatures .By giving people the money to buy groceries, states also stimulate their local economies, she said.
But despite tough financial times, many people hesitate to accept what they consider a government handout, or they don't think they qualify.A common misperception is that "if you have a job, you can't get Food Stamps," said New Hampshire Food Stamp program director Laurie Green. "But one of the reasons we're seeing such an increase in enrollment right now is people with jobs can't make ends meet."
To address the problem, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) last month held the state's first ever hunger summit - primarily to mobilize all state agencies to get the message out to poor residents that they should take maximum advantage of the federal food subsidy. "We want everyone to know there's no shame in accessing Food Stamps," said the state's welfare commissioner Julia Kehoe.
In Tennessee, caseworkers are driving hundreds of miles to sign people up in housing projects, rural churches and community centers. Michigan Food Stamp administrators are setting up shop in centers for the elderly, and the state soon may become the first to provide benefits twice a month, instead of just once. Nevada is installing kiosks in grocery stores so low-income shoppers can quickly find out whether they qualify for the subsidy.
Other state efforts to get Food Stamps to as many as possible already are in place:
While the nationwide surge in Food Stamps this year is about 8 percent, some states are experiencing sharper increases. New Hampshire reports an 18 percent rise in applications compared to last year. Maine and Michigan say one in eight residents now relies on the food subsidy, compared to about one in 11 nationwide. West Virginia reports an even higher rate of one in six.
At the Massachusetts hunger meeting March 27, Patrick said, "Fighting hunger is not about kindness. Adequate adult nutrition helps folks contribute more fully to our economy." With rising food and energy costs, he said "the middle class is just one month away from being poor, and they are deeply anxious about it."
As states make it easier to become a new Food Stamp recipient, some are starting to focus on retaining people who already have benefits. "It's much easier to close the back door than to go out and find new people who qualify," said Stacy Dean, hunger expert with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities .
In July, Utah will start calling all recipients who have failed to return their signed recertification papers and encourage them to do so, said state Food Stamps chief Kathy Link."Starting the process all over again (rather than renewing eligibility) is much more work for recipients and for the department," she said.
As the rolls expand, a few states are having problems keeping up with the paperwork, Dean said. But most are rising to the occasion and pushing for even more enrollees.
In New Hampshire, Green said, "the caseloads are crazy. But we keep doing outreach, because so many people simply don't realize they're eligible, particularly the elderly."
According to the USDA, nearly 36 million Americans go hungry every year, including 12 million children - and the numbers are rising.
The dollar value of Food Stamps an individual or family can receive is based on income. This year, benefits range from a minimum benefit of $10 per month for an individual or couple without children to $162 per month for an individual making $13,284 per year (130 percent of the poverty level) and as much as $975 per month for a family of eight, making $44,952 per year. A family of four, making $26,856, could receive up to $542 per month, according to USDA .
In the 1990s, federal qualification rules for the food program were tightened to prevent fraud and abuse. In addition, welfare reform caused caseworkers who also administered Food Stamps to require additional paperwork for all public assistance 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, leaving it up to states to take advantage of the new flexibility.
States have come a long way in adopting the new federal options, said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center . "They've made real strides in outreach and program simplification," she said, noting "it's not easy to change after a system has been in place for more than a decade."