States Use Red Tape To Shrink Food Stamp Program


Nine states want to know what a child earns from a paper route or part-time job to determine how much in food stamps a family can receive. Twenty-nine states ask families to list the value of a burial plot. A handful of states go so far as to demand information on the sale of personal items, including blood, from food stamp applicants.

By using unnecessarily long applications and intrusive questions, states are going far beyond the dictates of federal law and are preventing needy families from obtaining food assistance, a study released Monday by the national anti-hunger organization, America's Second Harvest, found.

Nationally, the average food stamp form runs 12 pages, longer than an application for a federal firearm permit or a home mortgage loan, the 50-state review discovered. Minnesota's food stamp questionnaire is 36 pages. West Virginia requires needy families to wade through 33 pages. California's application asks 120 questions, followed by a stern admonition that incorrect answers can result in a fine of up to $250,000 and/or 20 years in prison. At the same time, the form is so riddled with legalese it is guaranteed to confuse the poorly educated.

Many of these questions are not verifiable, says Doug O'Brien of Second Harvest. In many cases, state officials "don't even seem to care if people understand what they are being asked."

Maryland asks applicants to list "deemor expenses." A spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Human Resources said neither she nor the department secretary could define the term and said no food stamp "technicians" were presently available.

The Second Harvest report is the latest to document the growing number of hurdles that states have erected supposedly to root out fraud in the food stamp program. But the barriers have resulted in a sharp drop in those qualifying for and receiving food stamps, advocates say.

Nationally, as of May 2000, 17 million Americans relied on food stamps, down from 26.6 million in 1995. This drop has far outpaced recent dips in poverty and Second Harvest estimates that a third of those eligible for food stamps do not get them. The average benefit per recipient is $72 a month.

Although the federal government bears nearly 100 percent of the cost of the food stamp program, it is well within the authority of the states to makes the process easier, O'Brien says.

"Why is it Illinois can enroll people in the food stamp program in five pages and other states use 30?" he said.

Food stamp applications have been steadily growing over the past decade, with new requirements of welfare reform adding to the confusion, O'Brien says. In fact, three years after the overhaul of the welfare system, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to issue the final regulations that will guide the states on implementing the changes to the food stamp program.

Concerned about fraud and abuse, many states have also had a growing preoccupation with accuracy. The federal government audits food-stamp performance annually and penalizes states for over- and underpaying recipients, although no state has paid a fine to the federal government in 15 years, O'Brien said.

Last summer, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman sent a letter to the states urging them to simplify their application procedures so that fewer people were unnecessarily denied aid. By January, when Second Harvest began collecting applications, most states had yet to comply, O'Brien said.

At the same time, the state food stamp rolls have continued to drop and are down by an estimated 200,000 since the beginning of the year.


Related Stories