Smarter approach to food stamps [Commentary]

Better coordination among agencies could improve access to assistance and ensure funds are spent locally

September 01, 2014|By Michael J. Wilson

Fifty years ago this week, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 was signed into law. The goal was to ensure that those of us with the least would not be without food. In the ensuing decades, the program adapted to cultural, economic and technological changes and has provided millions of people with better nutrition. Today, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the modern incarnation of food stamps) remains our nation's most effective tool in the fight against hunger.

The Food Supplement Program (FSP, Maryland's name for SNAP) is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people in Maryland, but the country's wealthiest state is still missing out on opportunities to use existing tools to fight hunger.

We've watched food stamps pull millions of Americans out of deep poverty; improve the health and nutrition of children, veterans and seniors; and boost the economies of urban and rural areas. When we moved from actual stamps to electronic cards, the process became more efficient and less stigmatized, which resulted in more low-income working families participating, with a low fraud rate that is the envy of other programs.

Unfortunately, Maryland's implementation of FSP could be much more effective and help many vulnerable Marylanders avoid going hungry. Recently, a desperate man called our office hoping we could help him get one regular meal per day. Though he'd held middle class jobs for most of his life, his unemployment benefits had expired after being laid off and he was living day to day, eating only two or three meals a week. It was a completely unnecessary hardship, because the state should have notified him that he qualified for food assistance when his unemployment benefits ran out.

His is just one face of hunger in Maryland. Across the state, one in eight households are food insecure, and nearly 21 percent of households with children struggle to have enough food to provide regular, healthy meals for their families. Even worse, more than a third of those who are eligible for FSP are not getting it.

Hunger exists in poverty-stricken areas of urban Baltimore and in more isolated rural areas of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore. More and more, we are also seeing hidden hunger in our wealthier suburban communities. The great recession hit so many industries so hard that many previously middle class families can no longer afford to feed their families and make ends meet. It is telling, and indicative of hunger across America, that a food bank in Montgomery County reports people checking their watches because they have to get back to work. They represent the growing masses of working poor who never thought they would need food assistance.

Our state has the responsibility — and the means — to assist them all: the working poor, seniors and veterans, and the thousands whose long-term unemployment benefits were cut short. And yet, Maryland is failing to make policy choices that could prevent thousands of Marylanders from going to bed hungry each night.

For example, we are not responding to a glaring lack of coordination between the Department of Human Resources, which implements FSP, and the Department of Labor, which oversees unemployment benefits.

As a result, many long-term unemployed people — like the man who called our office — qualify for food assistance, yet are not enrolled and don't even know they are eligible. It will take political and policy leadership and technological cooperation to make sure every eligible unemployed Marylander is informed of his or her eligibility for FSP.

There are other examples. Coordinating the benefits that low-income Marylanders get — from food assistance to health care to energy assistance — could let us make use of existing federal programs without incurring additional state costs. It is a tragedy that we are not utilizing our thriving technological resources to achieve such coordination and access to federal benefits for our citizens.

A little technology and cross-agency coordination could have a big impact. In fact, if all qualified individuals were enrolled and received their rightful benefits, participants would spend more dollars at their local grocery store or farmers market and, most importantly, their families would have better health and nutrition. That would be an economic stimulus and a health advantage.

Fifty years after federal legislators acknowledged that fighting hunger was the government's moral responsibility, Maryland's leaders are compelled to see that obligation through. It's not enough to say happy birthday; what we should do is resolve to make the future much better.

Michael J. Wilson is the Director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit advocacy and outreach organization based in Baltimore; http://www.mdhungersolutions.org. His email is mjwilson@mdhungersolutions.org.


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