USDA works to simplify food stamp program

To someone with a full stomach, the pickings look pretty slim at Bread for the City, Washington's largest food pantry. Each brown paper bag holds a three-day supply of canned fruits and vegetables, frozen hot dogs and turkey, ramen and other noodles, macaroni and cheese, and a few pudding packs.

For two mothers who arrive on a Wednesday morning to pick up their sacks of free food, however, the bags hold most of what their families will eat over the next few days.

Both women receive food stamps. If they lived in the suburbs, where it's easy to find Shoppers Food Warehouse and other discount grocers, the stamps might be enough. But living in the city without a car means shopping at expensive grocery stores, and then hitting a couple of pantries each month once their stamps run out. "I'm blessed to have this assistance," one woman said, "but we all know that food stamps just don't last for the month."

The $23.7 billion-a-year food stamp program is supposed to be the first line of defense against hunger in America. But with only 62 percent of those who are eligible for food stamps now participating, millions of families are getting no government help and are turning to community food pantries.

Even so, the food stamp rolls are growing fast. From September 2001 to September 2003, the number of Americans receiving food stamps jumped by 27 percent, from 17.9 million to 22.7 million. And despite the nascent turnaround in the economy, everyone involved in helping to get food to the poor--from the Agriculture Department to local food banks--expects the caseloads to climb even higher.

Kate Coler, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services at Agriculture, said, "Food stamps is a nutrition program; it is not a welfare program." But historically, food stamps have been a lot easier to get for a family that is already on welfare. Applying for stamps is complicated. It requires a lot of paperwork to report income, assets, expenses, and household size. Moreover, because some working-poor parents experience big fluctuations in their monthly paychecks, they were required until recently to keep their caseworker apprised--often in person--of any income changes so that their stamp allotment could be recalculated. For working parents, enrolling and staying in the program means taking precious time off work.

Partly because of the difficulties for people with jobs, the food stamp rolls plummeted after the enactment of the 1996 welfare reform law, which pushed millions of families from welfare checks to paychecks. In 1996, 26 million adults and children were getting stamps. By 2000, that number had dropped to about 17 million.

But the families who fell off the list still struggled to put food on the table. Studies by the government and advocacy groups showed that these families relied on private food banks instead of the government-funded stamps.

"We went through unparalleled economic growth and very low unemployment, yet the number of people we were serving grew twice as fast as the population," said Doug O'Brien, vice president for public policy at America's Second Harvest, the country's largest food-bank system. Officials at the Chicago-based nonprofit realized that despite the decrease in unemployment, the number of people in poverty hadn't changed all that much. After welfare reform, more poor Americans had jobs instead of welfare checks, but because of the difficulty of getting food stamps, the working poor turned to food banks. "Nearly half of the people we serve come from households in which an adult is working," O'Brien said.

And despite the recent increase in the food stamp rolls, the food pantries, in the words of one operator, are still "getting slammed" by overwhelming demand. A December 2003 study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that emergency requests for food shot up by 17 percent last year. Furthermore, in about half of the cities surveyed, lack of resources forced agencies and food banks to turn people away.

Historically, "the needy person was the guy with a 5 o'clock shadow, who was a recovering alcoholic at the mission down the alley," said Catherine D'Amato, president of the Greater Boston Food Bank. Now the needy are more likely to be families with homes and, in many cases, jobs. "It used to be that you went once a year for an emergency, and now [food banks] are a way of life: You go every month," D'Amato said.

Unlike the decline in overall welfare caseloads after 1996, the drop-off in the food stamp rolls was not viewed as a cause for celebration. Instead, to advocates and administrators, and to Democrats and Republicans alike, the decline illuminated a major problem in the country's food policies. Changes were needed.

At the administrative level, both the Clinton and Bush administrations tried to make the food stamp program more accessible to poor working families. The states were encouraged to loosen their asset requirements and ease the application process. A Second Harvest study in 2000 documenting the complexities involved in food stamp applications and recertifications showed that some states demanded that applicants report income even from garage sales, birthday gifts, and the sale of blood plasma. As a result, USDA hired a contractor to help the states simplify their paperwork and encouraged caseworkers to waive in-person interviews, when possible.

The 2002 farm bill built on these changes. Legal immigrants who had been kicked off the rolls entirely in 1996 were allowed back on. Complex income eligibility rules, which were different for food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid, were simplified; states were permitted to use one definition for every program. The federal government also allowed states to ask recipients to report their income twice a year, instead of every month. And most important, the quality control system, which had encouraged states to make stringent demands on food stamp recipients, was relaxed. Now, only administrators with persistent problems run the risk of penalties.

Advocates credit Agriculture Undersecretary Eric Bost with aggressively ensuring that the changes made in Washington took effect throughout the country. O'Brien says that Bost's message is clear: "If you're eligible for nutrition programs, especially for food stamps, we want you in." And that message, coupled with greater flexibility, means that the states are now focusing on getting more people into the program.

"Suddenly, the purpose of the program is central again. It's meant to provide food assistance to Americans who lack the resources to provide enough food," O'Brien said. "And now that is driving [the program], not just the quality control system."

Arizona is now putting food stamp posters and applications in grocery stores. Massachusetts cut its application from 12 pages to four. Community groups and food banks in Texas are reaching out to eligible immigrants. Delaware created a tool that food banks can use to show people how much they could be receiving in food stamps. And similarly, USDA has a new online resource for local food banks and community groups that people can use to determine if they're eligible and, if so, for how much.

It's too early to say how well the new measures are working. Most experts agree that the economic downturn, which increased the pool of eligible participants, is the reason for the jump in participation in the past few years. Moreover, some states have been slow to embrace the new streamlining options because of the up-front costs involved; the states have to shoulder half of the administrative costs of the federal program.

"Everyone wants to get rid of red tape and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, but they can't get the resources to do the training and to reprogram the computers," said Stacy Dean, director of food stamp policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In California, for example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed reversing his predecessor's decision to loosen the vehicle asset rules and provide transitional benefits for people leaving welfare for work. By doing so, he'd shave $100,000 off his state's massive budget deficit--but also lose more than $200 million in new federal funds, says a group called the California Budget Project.

"The image of food stamps may have become more positive, but that doesn't mean that it's first in the hearts of the leadership of a lot of states," said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. "It still takes a bit of money to bring in a lot of money."

While trying to make the program in the states friendlier to working families, advocates in Washington are now focused on next year's scheduled reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Kids are still going hungry; the 2000 census showed that almost one-third of the households headed by single mothers were "food insecure," which means that the moms weren't sure where all of their meals were going to come from that year. Surveys by America's Second Harvest reported that in 1997 one of five people in soup kitchen lines was a child, but by 2001, that proportion had risen to one in four.

"We know that these programs work, and that they have a substantial benefit not just to the child, but to society as a whole," said O'Brien, whose organization is pushing for $550 million a year in new funding for the Child Nutrition Act programs. "Ultimately, it's a political decision: Will we extend these benefits or not?"