Food stamp drop vexing, official says

Rolls decline 28%, but number of hungry at pantries increases

Welfare reform suspected

U.S. outreach aims to remind families they might qualify

August 18, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A sharp drop in the food stamp rolls -- at the same time hungry people are showing up in larger numbers at the nation's food pantries -- has puzzled national and state officials trying to combat the trend.

"There are a lot of people out in this country who qualify for food stamps, but for some reason are going undernourished or not qualifying for this program," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said yesterday in Baltimore.

Glickman was in town to launch a broad national outreach program to tell thousands of low-income families that they might qualify for the benefit.

A recent U.S. General Accounting Office study found that since 1994, food stamp rolls have dropped 28 percent across the nation. The bulk of the decrease occurred after 1996, the year federal welfare reform legislation was enacted.

Maryland's food stamp rolls have dropped 17 percent over the same period, said Lynda G. Fox, state secretary of human resources. She said Maryland had blunted the national trend by getting the word out earlier to those leaving welfare that they could still be eligible for food stamps.

The state has hired the University of Baltimore to contact people who have left welfare in the past six months, in part because it had been threatened with litigation over improper denial of Medicaid benefits to clients. Those contacts have helped make people aware of food stamps, Fox said.

Still, she said, state officials are working on a larger campaign "to redouble our ongoing efforts to ensure that low-income working families are aware of, and have access to, available help."

Glickman said the drop can be attributed to a number of factors, but that "one of the biggest reasons is a lack of information. A lot of people don't know that you can be working and still receive food stamps."

Officials say the decrease in food stamp participation doesn't mean hunger is diminishing.

Last year's patronage of emergency food pantries jumped 14 percent -- the largest increase in years, said Doug O'Brien, director of public policy and research for Second Harvest, a network of 200 food banks across the country. O'Brien likened those food banks to "a canary in the mine shaft," providing warning of the effects of welfare reform.

Families are eligible for food stamps if they earn less than 130 percent of the $16,700 federal poverty limit, or less than $21,710, for a family of four. They also must meet several other requirements.

Fox acknowledged that many who have left Maryland's welfare rolls in the past five years for jobs live on wages of $6.50 an hour -- or $1.35 above the federal minimum wage, "an amount insufficient to support a family," she said.

J. Peter Sabonis, who heads the Family Investment Program legal clinic in Baltimore, said one reason for the decline in the rolls might be that social service bureaucracies make it inconvenient for those who have left welfare to apply for food stamps.

"The culture of the welfare office is so unsuited to the working person that most working people want to get as far away from [it] as possible," he said. "It's too many hoops they have to jump through to get what they consider to be a small amount of benefit."

While he praised Maryland's efforts to preserve benefits for those entitled to them, Glickman said some states have had problems administering the food stamp program.

The national outreach campaign follows new rules issued by President Clinton several months ago that allowed states to simplify the process for prospective recipients to calculate their income. The rules also created more generous tests of prospective recipients' assets.

Glickman unveiled yesterday a set of posters outlining eligibility criteria in English and Spanish. He also has set up a national toll-free hot line, 1-800-221-5689, to help people determine whether they are eligible for food stamps.

Lenora Bailey of Baltimore, a former welfare recipient and mother of seven who works as an office clerk at a Baltimore Department of Social Services office, appeared with Glickman to say that food stamps had helped her ease the transition to work.

"Help is out there for you," she said. "I know because I'm being helped myself."

Pub Date: 8/18/99

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