Farm bill expands cumbersome Food Stamp Program
Budget hawks are criticizing efforts to expand a welfare program that many people decline to use, even though the government has spent millions of dollars to tout its benefits.
The House voted last month to add $4 billion to the granddaddy of America’s domestic nutrition programs for the poor: the Food Stamp Program.
The measure, part of the farm bill that passed by a vote of 231-191 on July 27, also would ease the program’s eligibility rules and increase food stamp benefits.
Anti-hunger advocates are pleased with many of the changes to the program, which provides about $33 billion a year in assistance.
“These investments represent real progress in addressing hunger in the U.S.,” the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), an antihunger advocacy group, said after the bill passed.
But Jeffrey M. Jones, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative-leaning think tank, said now is not the time for the government to cajole poor people into using a federal entitlement program.
“The drive to reduce entitlement spending while simultaneously expanding participation [in the Food Stamp Program] is tantamount to having two trains racing toward each other on the same track — catastrophic,” Mr. Jones wrote in December.
“It’s one thing to offer a program to people in need,” said Chris Edwards, a tax-policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. “But I don’t think we should be beating them over the head with a bat, saying you’ve got to take federal welfare. I mean, c’mon. My taxpayer money is being used to encourage people to cost me even more tax money? I have a problem with that.” High hassle, low value
As of 2005, 35 percent of eligible low-income households did not use food stamps, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program.
Stigma is often cited as a reason for not using food stamps, but several people at a faith-based antipoverty program in Maryland gave more pragmatic reasons for nonparticipation.
“You have to give your life history, and they give you $10? That don’t make sense,” said Willa Mae Meal, who was handling the sign-in sheet on a recent Friday morning at the Community Ministry of Prince George’s County. The group gives away produce and food twice a month at its headquarters in Seat Pleasant.
“You have to be dirt poor to get [food stamp] assistance,” said LaTonya Bell, a working married mother of three who was one of about 100 people in line.
A few people near her chimed in: “They take all your information, and then they deny you,” one woman said.
“If you have one penny over the scale, you can’t get them,” another woman said. “And who wants $21 a month or $13 a month [in food stamps]?” she added, as others nodded in agreement. “What can that buy? You can’t hardly get a pork chop with $13 a month.”
The Washington Times repeatedly heard such complaints while visiting Washington-area feeding programs: that the hassle of getting food stamps isn’t worth the benefit. Benefit levels
Food stamps are intended to augment a poor household’s normal food budget and ensure there is enough to eat.
Most participants get a modest benefit: In fiscal 2005, a third of the households received $100 to $200 a month.
Only 5 percent of recipients received the minimum $10-a-month allotment, and the bulk of these recipients were senior citizens.
The House farm bill raises the monthly minimum benefit — which has not been adjusted for inflation for 30 years — from $10 to about $16 a month, said Stacy Dean, director of food-assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a liberal leaning antipoverty think tank.
The average food stamp benefit for a single senior citizen is about $50 a month, which is what Melissa Moore Nelson, 69, receives.
“It’s worth it to me,” said Mrs. Nelson, a widow from Cheverly, Md. who was one of dozens of retirees waiting in line for food at the Community Ministry in Seat Pleasant.
Several other seniors said they didn’t get food stamps because they didn’t qualify for them, or they qualified for only $10 a month and it “wasn’t worth” the time and expense of visiting a welfare office. Income test
One hurdle to qualifying for the program is the strict income test, which was designed to ensure that only the neediest families get food stamps.
In fiscal 2005, for instance, the maximum allowable gross monthly income for a single person was $1,009.
Gross income is the most important factor, said Amanda Belcher, an outreach worker with the Capital Area Food Bank who spent one recent night helping people apply for food stamps at the Anacostia Farmers Market.
She was asked whether a person who earns $1,200 a month and has only $200 left for food after paying rent and utilities would qualify for food stamps.
Probably not, Ms. Belcher replied, because “if the gross income is too high,” the application is rejected.
The income test — which could disqualify a mother of two who works 40 hours a week at $11 an hour — has been particularly prohibitive since the 1996 welfare-towork reform.
The Food Stamp Program, which escaped a federal overhaul, quickly diverged from new welfare policies: Poor families discovered that getting a car and a job made them too “rich” for food stamps.
Food stamp rolls plummeted, from 27.4 million recipients in 1994 to 17.1 million in 2000. By 2003, only 49.7 percent — not even half — of the estimated eligible families were using food stamps.
Congress and President Clinton, who signed the 1996 welfare law, swiftly took steps to realign food stamps with other welfare programs. Now, food stamp families can own at least one vehicle and most families that qualify for welfare programs automatically qualify for food stamps.
But the federal government, alarmed by “low” food stamp par- ticipation rates, started spending millions of dollars on outreach campaigns. The efforts paid off: In fiscal 2005, 65.1 percent, or 10.7 million eligible households, used food stamps. By fiscal 2006, almost 12 million households, representing 26.6 million people, were on food stamp rolls.
This pleases anti-hunger activists, who note that 35 million Americans are hungry or at risk for hunger and who say that food stamps are an essential safety net.
FRAC, CBPP and others are also pleased that the House bill makes it easier for people to enroll in the Food Stamp Program by raising the standard household deduction from $134 to $145 and indexing it for inflation; allowing the limit on countable resources to be indexed for inflation; allowing unlimited deductions for child care expenses; and excluding retirement savings accounts, education savings accounts and combat-related military pay as countable income. Stamps and snacks
Another complaint about food stamps is that they are a culprit in poor diets. Put another way, stamps are for snacks.
“You can’t eat healthy on food stamps. Everything’s that 99 cents is not healthy,” said Mrs. Bell, the mother in the Seat Pleasant food line. She eventually walked away with bags of fresh tomatoes, potatoes, raspberries, pasta, bread, cookies and crackers, courtesy of the Capital Area Food Bank and the Rev. Raymond V. Ellis Sr.’s bread ministry.
Although food stamps can be used only for food, not all foods can be purchased with food stamps: “Hot foods,” such as rotisserie chicken, are off-limits.
Not prohibited are other ready-toeat foods, including the inexpensive, tasty and high-calorie cupcakes, candy, snack foods and sugary drinks that line the shelves of convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods.
Concern about excess weight among poor populations is rising. A 2004 federal study, for example, found that adult female food stamp recipients were more likely to be obese than non-recipients.
In 2004, Minnesota state officials asked the USDA for permission to block food-stamp purchases of candy and soft drinks. But the USDA refused, citing regulatory nightmares. Questions such as “Is this a prohibited candy car or an allowable breakfast bar” would abound, the agency said in its Amber Waves newsletter in May.
Instead of restricting
choices, policy-makers and antipoverty advocates want the poor to have more nutrition education, cooking classes and access to fresh produce, such as farmers markets in inner cities.
Some people who work with or study low-income populations have different ideas: Convert the food stamp card to a “household supplement card,” or cash it out completely.
“If generation after generation” is living on social services, government is not doing its job, said Apostle Shirley Holloway-Johnson, who runs the House of Help City of Hope ministry in Anacostia.
Instead of a food stamp card, she proposes a “household supplement card” that can be used for food and certain essential items, such as diapers, toilet paper and cleaning supplies. With a household supplement card, the government would be saying to people: “If you want help from us, this is what we say you are going to need to function” in a “sanitized, healthy, normal or close-to-normal life.”
Deacon Patricia Jefferson of the Jericho City of Praise, a megachurch in Landover, Md. that runs an emergency food pantry, also likes the idea of allowing food stamps for certain nonfood products.
Even a simple necessity such as laundry detergent is expensive for poor families, she said. “If that was part of the food stamp initiative, that would be good.”
Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has criticized federal feeding programs for contributing to the nation’s obesity problem, and he stands by his advice to simply “cash out” the program.
When the Food Stamp Program was created during the Great Depression and restarted during the War on Poverty in the 1960s, its purpose was to combat malnutrition, Mr. Besharov said.
“In this day and age,” he said, food stamps serve as income support, and the major nutrition problem is “not that people don’t have enough to eat, but that they are eating too much and they are eating the wrong food.”
The Food Stamp Program is “designed to increase consumption,” Mr. Besharov said. If it were converted to cash, “people could do a more responsible job in deciding what to eat.”
At a minimum, it is time to allow states to run the Food Stamp Program, Cato’s Mr. Edwards said. The federal government can’t keep funding everything it does now, he said. “It seems to me that’s a very strong reason to send some of these programs that don’t need to be at the federal level back to the states,” he said.
Congress seems to have no appetite for these kinds of systemic reforms. Moreover, the farm bill may end up being extended as is. It expires Sept. 30; it still has to go through the Senate, and it faces the strong likelihood of a presidential veto because of its funding mechanisms.
“I find it unacceptable to raise taxes to pay for a farm bill that contains virtually no reform,” Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said July 25, after House Democratic leaders revealed that they would pay for the $4 billion in new food stamp funds with a tax increase on U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies.
As a result, some policy observers are already focusing on 2008.
“We’re not going to get serious farm- or food-subsidy reforms this year,” so “my goal is to get presidential candidates thinking about this going ahead,” Mr. Edwards said.
Gail Taylor sent residents home with bags of Clagett Farm produce at the Anacostia Farmers Market in Washington, D.C. Anti-poverty advocates say food stamp recipients need nutritious alternatives to the high-calorie, ready-to-eat products on convenience store shelves.