May 18, 2006 – With poverty and hunger on the rise in the US, an increasing number of families are relying on the government for food assistance. But recent studies show that low-income people often face insurmountable obstacles when they seek help.
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According to the US Department of Agriculture, nearly 12 percent of all households faced food insecurity in 2004, meaning "they were, at times, uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for all household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food." The rate of food insecurity has been on a slow rise since 1999, when it was about 10 percent.
The federal governmentâ€™s primary response to this growing problem is the food-stamp program. To qualify for food stamps, citizens and immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years must earn a net monthly income that is no higher than 130 percent of the federal poverty line â€“ currently $20,000 for a family of four. For the most part, unless they are children, elderly or disabled, they must also be working or training for a job.
But according to a study recently released by the California Food Policy Advocates (CPFA), tens of thousands of residents do not receive food stamps because the state does not reach out to people who may be unaware of their eligibility, and long lines and inconvenient hours of operation make the process burdensome to working people.
Long lines and inconvenient hours of operation make the process burdensome to working people.
While it is difficult to estimate the number of people actually in need of food stamps, the California Department of Health Services estimates that only 45 percent of residents who meet eligibility requirements receive assistance, with 2 million eligible residents doing without. These numbers represent a drop in statewide food-stamp participation rates in recent years, even though food insecurity has risen in the state at the same time.
CFPA conducted the study in part to calculate the extent of federal dollars that California governments miss in sales taxes when large numbers of people who could be spending food-stamp dollars are not. After interviewing about 400 applicants in four counties, the group found that the application process took an average of one-and-a-half trips to the food-stamp office, half as long as applicants spent in 1999. The group praised the decrease but added that office visits were still too burdensome for many.
The studyâ€™s major recommendation to make applying easier is to offer "out of office" applications online or by telephone.
Jessica Bartholow, director of food-stamp outreach for the California Association of Food Banks, said that requiring office visits is one of several state policies that reduce the number of people who apply for and receive benefits.
"The process isnâ€™t really set up for the people weâ€™re providing outreach to," Bartholow said. "Elderly, disabled and working people â€“ theyâ€™re not just sitting at home waiting for their phone call from the food-stamp office," she said, adding that an online application would enable more low-income working people to receive food stamps.
â€œIt's about punishing poor people for being poor.â€
California is not alone in the number of eligible people who do not apply for food stamps, nor are food stamp applicants in the state alone in their frustration.
Earlier this year, the Urban Justice Center released the results of a study based on the records of about 1,500 New York City residents who volunteers at outreach centers had deemed eligible for food stamps. While these residents were interested enough in food stamps to go to screenings at assistance centers, only 42 percent of them ended up enrolled.
After interviewing 144 of these clients, the Urban Justice Center released similar findings to those in the CFPAâ€™s report. The group found that inflexible operating hours in most offices and "prohibitively long wait times" deterred many people from applying, especially working people who were unable to take a day off.
While 45 percent of elderly or otherwise non-working clients in the study enrolled, just 37 percent of working clients had enrolled. The report noted that New York City has initiated efforts to facilitate applications by accepting initial applications through mail and waiving face-to-face interviews for the elderly and disabled. It recommended expanding operating hours for all offices and waiving office interviews to accommodate working people.
Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which represents food banks in New York City, said many people prefer going to a food pantry rather than using food stamps because applying for food stamps nationwide and in New York City is needlessly difficult.
But Michael Hayes, a spokesman for the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said office visits were necessary to ensuring valid applications and preventing fraud.
Hayes said that with online applications, "you're not communicating directly. It does open the potential for fraud or error." Since the federal government levies fines on states with high error rates, he said it was especially important to verify the accuracy of applicantsâ€™ financial background.
When visiting a food-stamp office, applicants must bring any number of documents, from pay stubs and utility bills to Social Security cards and immunization records.
While application procedures are lengthy, advocates agree that a major problem is that many people do not know they are eligible in the first place.
According to Robin Sirota, a director of Los Sures, a community center that holds weekly food-stamp screenings, many immigrants do not apply because they assume they are ineligible or worry that receiving the benefits will affect their immigration status.
"They donâ€™t know that if theyâ€™re receiving food stamps, it doesnâ€™t affect their immigration status," added Ana Moreno, who holds similar screenings for the Food Card Access Project, an outreach coalition of nonprofits. "Weâ€™re here to give them the right information."
Another barrier in some areas is fingerprinting of applicants, which only counties in New York, California and Texas practice.
Bartholow noted that fingerprinting is even a requirement for homebound recipients. "Itâ€™s an incredible waste of money," she said. "Itâ€™s an incredible deterrent to people to applying." Comparing the process of applying for food stamps to that of driverâ€™s licenses and social security benefits, she added, "The general population would not put up with giving their fingerprints."
Even the US government acknowledges the problem. In a report recommending steps states should take to increase food-stamp participation, the USDA wrote, "Aggressive fraud-prevention procedures, such as fingerprinting applicants and conducting front-end investigations, may be particularly intimidating to elderly and disabled applicants."
Berg of the Coalition Against Hunger said the requirement is one of many practices that discriminate against low-income people. "It's about punishing poor people for being poor," he said. It's a process that's been developed for the criminal justice system." Berg said fingerprinting and other rules make food-stamp offices "dehumanizing for everyone."
He added that with benefits sometimes as low as $10 a month, the offices put off potential applicants.
Advocates agreed that the USDA and state offices must help ensure that caseworkers, and the general public, stop stereotyping food-stamp recipients as lazy. They said measures such as the replacement of stamps with a debit-card-like electronic benefits transfer card and ads targeted toward low-income working people have been helpful in reducing stigma. Some said the term "food stamps" is outdated and that changing the name of the program would help change public perception of recipients.
But some advocates for low-income people, such as Bill Ayres, executive director of the advocacy group World Hunger Year, say that while food stamps are the governmentâ€™s "first line of defense" against hunger, they are not a solution to the basic problem that so many families cannot afford adequate food.
Ayres, whose organization was involved in raising the minimum wage in New York City, and in the Universal Living Wage Campaign, advocates establishing a living wage adjusted to differences in cost of living nationwide so that low-income people do not have to decide between housing and food.
"We have low wages in this country," he said. "If you're making eight dollars an hour, how can you feed your family on that?"