Food stamp morass

November 08, 1991

The federal food stamp program has always been a safety net with very large holes. Last year, Congress tried to patch some of them so those who deserve help would have an easier time getting it. But when Bush administration officials tried to translate Congress' mandate into regulations recently, the kinder and gentler rhetoric faded fast into sloganeering.

The most glaring example is a proposed change in the way government deals with the complex forms that millions of recipients are required to fill out every month to get benefits. Currently, if a person makes a mistake when filling out the form, or misses the deadline, he or she gets a notice when a second deadline has passed. Food stamp benefits are delayed until the form is received, properly completed. But the entire month's allotment is eventually available. The administration proposes to waive the requirement for a second notice, which would inevitably leave some recipients in the dark for weeks. Then, the new regulations would allow officials to prorate the food stamp allotment based on the date that the correctly completed form is received -- essentially, making the loss of food a penalty for not properly completing the required paperwork.

Another provision would count, for the purpose of determining eligibility, the sale value of assets -- of a car, for example -- even if the equity were small. For victims of the newest wave of layoffs, who until recently had fairly good jobs, substantial mortgages, car payments and cars, the draft regulations make impoverishment a trade-off for government help.

Another proposed regulation would undercut Congress' intention to provide more benefits for the homeless. Yet another would undermine the lawmakers' attempt to make it easier for people getting general assistance benefits to get food stamps.

There is undoubtedly some, albeit modest, saving in implementing the administration's draft regulations. But with 23.6 million people -- a startling one in 10 Americans -- getting help from the food stamp program, it would be a savings most American taxpayers would be hard-pressed to support.

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