Farm bill ex­pands cum­ber­some Food Stamp Pro­gram

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Ch­eryl Wet­zstein

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

food

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.

Rod Lamkey Jr. / The Wash­ing­ton Times

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.

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