TOPICS > Politics

Barriers to Food Stamps

April 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RON BOES: That’s $3.29 for the broccoli and carrots.

LEE HOCHBERG: Ron Boes has trouble affording food for his family. He hasn’t been able to work since a generator fell on him ten years ago and broke his back while he was working as a mechanic.

RON BOES: Food has been really tight. My daughter had a friend over, and she noticed that we didn’t have much and she pulled money out of her pocket and bought food for herself.

LEE HOCHBERG: He receives disability payments, and his wife earns $1,100 a month plus tips working as a bartender. But his high medical costs and Seattle’s high cost of housing make it hard to feed their three teenagers.

RON BOES: I hope that somehow, somewhere, you know, something would come in from somehow. I need to be more humble and say, “yes, I need help.”

LEE HOCHBERG: He gets no help from food stamps. Since welfare reform began in 1996, the number of Americans getting stamps has dropped by one-third, from 25 million then to only 17 million today. Some of that reduction was intentional. New rules made it harder for adults without children to qualify for food stamps. But critics say most of the reduction wasn’t planned for at all. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, delegated the food stamp program to state governments to run, and many of them, trying to avoid food stamp fraud, imposed a maze of bureaucratic barriers that actually weed out people who should qualify for food stamps.

DEANA KNUTSEN: There’s whole populations that have just been dropped off the rolls that are being totally ignored.

LEE HOCHBERG: Advocates for the poor, like Deana Knutsen of Washington Citizen Action, say it’s outrageous for states to restrict food stamps at a time 10% of American families don’t get enough to eat. The Government estimates 37% of those eligible for food stamps– 12 million people– aren’t getting them.

DEANA KNUTSEN: When they passed welfare reform, it was not supposed to be more difficult to get food stamps. That was a basic program that anybody under a certain income level was supposed to be eligible for.

SPOKESMAN: It’s food we’re talking about, that’s the bottom line here.

LEE HOCHBERG: To examine the food stamp problem, the National Campaign for Jobs and Income, and advocate Kevin Borden recruited people like Boes to apply for food stamps and see what happened. Boes started in November, and like many, had trouble just getting through the application.

RON BOES: It’s “I” or “we” or “I, we,” or you know, “I am,” “we am,” what is this? Is this a joint application for me and my wife? Or is this my application?

LEE HOCHBERG: Washington State’s application is six pages. Half the states, the study found, have applications 10 to 36 pages long, with Minnesota’s at 40 pages. The food aid group, Second Harvest, says nearly all require a 12th grade reading level, seeking information on everything from burial plots to income from blood donations.

RON BOES: I couldn’t fill it out. If it was just me filling out the form, I couldn’t have done it. Without the help from my wife, I couldn’t have filled it out.

LEE HOCHBERG: A USDA study found it takes an average of five hours to apply for food stamps, including two visits to a food stamp office.

SPOKESMAN: Let’s go, huh?

LEE HOCHBERG: The test project found many applicants were not screened for emergency service when they went to the office, though it’s required by law. And others had difficulty even getting an interview with a caseworker. Boes tried on a Wednesday, about noon.

LEE HOCHBERG: What happened?

RON BOES: Well, I went in there and I talked to the desk to verify I was in the right place, and they said, “yeah, you’re in the right place, but everybody’s at lunch. Come back at 1:00.”

LEE HOCHBERG: He tried again at 1:00.

RON BOES: The lady that does interviews told me that they don’t do interviews today because it’s Wednesday. “Wednesdays are off days, it’s days when we catch up on our paperwork,” or something like that.

LEE HOCHBERG: But a caseworker did take a cursory look at Boes’ application– long enough to send him away.

RON BOES: And then she told me, “look, I’m not going to answer any more of your questions. You don’t qualify for food stamps.” She looked at my application really quick. She basically gave me this thing and said “go to this church and go to this food bank and get some food there.”

LEE HOCHBERG: The referral to the food bank said Boes is “not eligible for food stamps.” The test project’s Borden says food stamp eligibility is determined by a complex formula of income minus deductions, and the caseworker couldn’t possibly have assessed Boes’ case so quickly.

KEVIN BORDEN, National Campaign for Jobs and Income: The whole point is no one sat down with him and talked to him and deducted his child support, child care deductions, household deductions.

LEE HOCHBERG: The NewsHour asked a supervisor why Boes hadn’t received an interview. That prompted her to call him and set one up.

SUPERVISOER: We don’t want to make access impossible for people. I mean, we’re here to serve people…

LEE HOCHBERG: She asked that he bring a picture ID, bank statement and the lease for his car, a month worth of pay stubs, verification of his mortgage payment, homeowner’s insurance and real estate taxes, gas and electric bills. That begged a question of the state’s food stamp program administrator. If they need that information, how could they have said that he wasn’t eligible without having received that information?

SPOKESMAN: I don’t think they said he wasn’t eligible. I think they said, “it appears that you’re not going to be eligible.”

LEE HOCHBERG: He read that purple form that said “does not qualify for benefits” to mean “does not qualify for benefits.” You’re saying it means something different than that?

SPOKESMAN: It was not a formal denial notice of benefits.

LEE HOCHBERG: The state’s John Atherton says his department screens out applicants if it appears they won’t qualify. It’s part of a broader effort to reduce food stamp fraud. He says for the last three years, every state has been under pressure from the federal government to reduce overpayments. In 1998, 22 states had error rates over 10%, Washington State, the highest in the country. Facing the threat of a $17 million federal fine, Washington State established safeguards against overpayments– like the long application and rigorous screening of applicants.

SPOKESMAN: People were doing their damndest to bring the error rate under control. And that’s what they were told was success for this program.

LEE HOCHBERG: With the new emphasis on accuracy, food stamp rolls dropped more than 40% in places like Texas, Delaware and Maryland, and Washington State. But the USDA says at the same time, 12 of every 100 households in Washington are hungry. Atherton says access to food stamps probably has become too difficult.

JOHN ATHERTON: The single-minded focus on the part of the federal government on food stamp accuracy, food stamp quality control errors, did aggravate the issue of hunger. Precise accuracy in terms of the federal rules became more important than access to food stamp benefits.

LEE HOCHBERG: Boes got an in- person interview three weeks later. He says he told his caseworker he had hundreds of dollars of new medical receipts yet to submit. But before he could do that, he got this rejection letter. It included no detail of the calculations that led to the rejection or the simple steps he could take to become eligible. Seattle Attorney Lisa Brodoff– who specializes in public benefits issues– says the form is another barrier against food stamp access.

LISA BRODOFF: There is nothing specific in this notice to Ron Boes. It’s a sort of standard… Ron couldn’t know why he was ineligible. So how does he know what information to get the agency to correct that if it’s wrong?

JOHN ATHERTON: That information is information we would gladly provide to him.

LEE HOCHBERG: But you didn’t.

JOHN ATHERTON: If he had asked for it, we should have or would have.

LEE HOCHBERG: Brodoff helped us discover that, in fact, Boes’ caseworker had wrongly assessed Boes’ resources, which the state now admits. But discouraged and fighting new medical problems, Boes never reapplied.

LISA BRODOFF: You put up barriers to people understanding eligibility and understanding why they were denied, and they will not appeal… they won’t appeal it. It’s too difficult and there’s too much energy to doing it.

LEE HOCHBERG: Brodoff says that’s especially true of older applicants. 61-year-old Jeanette Williams spends hundreds of dollars a month on medication after her brain surgery. She applied for food aid in January, but was rejected when a caseworker used what NewsHour discovered was out-of-date property tax data to compute her shelter costs. The NewsHour told the state about the error, but Williams was denied for the next month, too. This time the medical benefits she had requested for ten months and is now finally receiving, disqualified her for food aid.

JEANETTE WILLIAMS: I don’t know. Just… There’s no hope. There is no way to live.

SPOKESPERSON: Hi. You want dairy today?

LEE HOCHBERG: Many of the hungry have turned to food banks run by charities and religious institutions. Food bank use in Washington has risen dramatically in the last decade, from 4 million to 5.5 million visits per year. Katie Heinrich directs the West Seattle Food Bank.

KATIE HEINRICH: We definitely have seen an increase in the past couple of years since the welfare reform has happened.

LEE HOCHBERG: But food banks say they’re unable to meet the increasing reliance on them for a full, balanced diet.

KATIE HEINRICH: We’re set up to be a temporary system. Ideally people come here once or twice in the gap in between while they’re getting food stamps. We shouldn’t be someone’s permanent system of getting food.

LEE HOCHBERG: Congress, which some say started the food stamp crisis by pressuring the USDA to monitor benefits more closely, is now offering proposals to expand access. One would require applicants to reapply for benefits every six months instead of the every three months some states now require. And states like Washington are developing a shorter, one-page application, with plans to put it online. Many states are airing public service messages to encourage more of the hungry to apply.

SPOKESMAN: Hey, if you need help with nutrition assistance, there’s food stamps. Give us a call.

LEE HOCHBERG: But more applications won’t necessarily mean less hunger. The issue is how they’re processed, at a time when expenditures are going to be watched.