Stamping out hunger

October 17, 2005

Congressional Republicans pushing for cuts and limits to federal entitlements such as the food stamp program argue that they are wasteful, widely abused and have outlived their usefulness. These lawmakers are wrong, and for proof one need only look at Baltimore or any other urban area where rates of household food shortages have grown.

The food stamp program has a proven record of measurably helping poor, disabled and elderly Americans. Some 25 million people, the majority of them children, are receiving food assistance benefits this year. The program also has a low error payment rate, and a recent Government Accountability Office report noted that more than 98 percent of food stamp benefits went to legitimately eligible households.

Lawmakers who want to cut the program conveniently overlook the millions of working poor and elderly people who qualify for food assistance benefits but don't apply for them because of language and cultural barriers, shame or lack of knowledge about the program. These people often turn to churches and food kitchens for help, or they go without regular meals.

Baltimore's food stamp caseload grew to nearly 104,000 this year from 98,000 in 2000, partly because of outreach efforts by the city's Department of Human Services that targeted potentially eligible households. The city has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers federal food assistance programs, and a discount grocery store chain to promote the program and allow shoppers to apply for benefits at its stores. The city also promotes the program at health fairs at Maryland General Hospital and at a homeless services agency. These steps should keep more people from going hungry.

A recent study of food stamp access rates in 25 of the largest urban areas, including Baltimore, found that while 22 of them had higher poverty rates than the rest of the country, only 62 percent of their residents eligible for food assistance benefits participated in the program, leaving $2.1 billion in federally funded benefits unclaimed. According to the study, by the Food Research and Action Center, the affected communities had higher living costs and unemployment rates than the rest of the country.

With even the USDA encouraging states to increase residents' access to the food stamp program, lawmakers should not be questioning whether the need is real.

Congress should reject any cuts to the program.

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