APRIL 14, 1997
A report on the impact of the new welfare reform law: How it will affect people who receive food stamps? Spencer Michels reports from San Francisco.
SPENCER MICHELS: Every weekday hundreds of people wait their turn to sign up for food stamps in San Francisco.
DENNIS STIMSON: Because I'm unemployed, jobs are scarce, and it's getting tougher out here, and I need to eat.
SPENCER MICHELS: Across the country 24 million individuals rely on food stamps each day, coupons that can be spent like money to buy food. In the past, most poor people, those whose incomes were below 130 percent of the poverty level, were eligible. But that is changing. Under the 1996 welfare reform law, about 3 ½ million recipients face cuts. About one of every five food stamps recipients here, where there is a large immigrant population, will likely be pared from the roles. Most legal immigrants who are not citizens will be cut off entirely. And able-bodied single adults will have to work, or lose their food stamps. In addition, recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children will have their food stamp buying power reduced. San Francisco's social services director, Will Lightbourne, predicts problems that he says are a result of Congress cutting the nation's largest safety net--food stamps.
WILL LIGHTBOURNE, Social Service Director: What they basically did was try to secure about $25 billion in savings between now and 2002. One really senses that, in truth, the intent was to cut spending, rather than any deliberate social goal.
SPENCER MICHELS: Eligibility workers will now have to determine if able-bodied adults between 18 and 50 are working at least 20 hours a week. If not, they will be limited to only three months' of food stamps in three years. Some applicants, like Sharon Gardner, say that's fine.
SHARON GARDNER, Food Stamp Applicant: That will give me enough time to find employment and get back on my feet. You know, I've always been a worker, so this--and this really is a last resort for me. It wasn't something that I was going to use as my lifestyle, like a lot of people were doing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Other food stamps recipients say they will not be able to meet the work requirement.
DAVID TORRES, Food Stamp Recipient: They should give us kind of, you know, a plan--give us some work, you know, a job search or something like that, you know--something.
SPENCER MICHELS: Have you tried to get a job?
DAVID TORRES: Yeah. I tried.
SPENCER MICHELS: And what happens?
DAVID TORRES: There ain't no work out here.
WILL LIGHTBOURNE: Unfortunately, when Congress adopted the new restrictions to the program, they didn't add to it any sort of resources for employment training, job services, job development for that community.
SPENCER MICHELS: While Lightbourne is highly critical of the cuts and concerned the state won't pick up the slack, California's director of social services supports them. Eloise Anderson received food stamps herself briefly many years ago after her marriage broke up.
ELOISE ANDERSON, California Social Services Director: Got food stamps and commodities, and when my income increased, I was gone.
SPENCER MICHELS: Anderson says Congress was right last year in imposing work requirements.
ELOISE ANDERSON: Instead of running around saying, oh, the sky is falling in, what you ought to be thinking about is where to get work. And so you work, you get food stamps; you don't work, you don't get them. And what it probably will do is force a lot of people into the work force.
SPENCER MICHELS: Of the nearly 50,000 individuals who get food stamps in San Francisco, about 5,000 are considered single, able-bodied, and therefore capable of working for their stamps. Their income determines how many--up to $120 a month. Shirley Cook gets half of that.
SHIRLEY COOK, Food Stamp Recipient: The food stamps are a big help to me. It's a lot of big help to me, and it's going to be a lot of big problem if they mess these food stamps up. A lot of people is going to be hurting.
SPENCER MICHELS: Because she has no refrigerator at home Cook shops fairly often with her stamps. She's a recovering addict who has some job experience doing laundry and styling hair. But because of various problems and her fight to get back her children, she says her prospects for work are limited.
SHIRLEY COOK: I'll try to get out there, but I--it's hard to get a job right now.
SPENCER MICHELS: Why is it hard for you to get a job?
SHIRLEY COOK: Because my angle is my GED--I have to have a high school diploma, a GED--and it's real hard for other people to judge people about getting a job. They have to be in their shoes to walk in their shoes, and they'll see how it is.
SPENCER MICHELS: Shirley Cook might be able to get into a so-called "workfare" program and keep her benefits. In some counties like San Francisco these public programs already exist to employ general assistance recipients in city jobs.
JOHN BUSHER, Department of Public Works: We feel we can expand the program. In our situation we're providing a supplemental layer of cleaning for the downtown and very heavy use, tourist-impacted areas.
SHIRLEY COOK: Well, if I have to sweep the streets, that's what I have to do, but I don't choose to sweep the streets. I have a bad back, so I'll try to go do something else.
SPENCER MICHELS: Other counties say they can't expand workfare without additional funds. That's a problem, according to California food policy advocates.
MARION STANDISH, California Food Policy Advocates: Unfortunately, if you look throughout the country in most states, those workfare slots are simply--they don't exist. So with the best of intentions, people who are able to work, who want to work, won't be able to find jobs, and they will lose their food stamps.
SPENCER MICHELS: For many of these people in line for a free meal job or workfare prospects are dim. Although some are considered able-bodied for food stamps purposes, many can't function.
CHARLENE TSCHIRHART, St. Anthony's Dining Room: At least 30 to 40 percent of our folks right here are dealing with chronic mental illness, not just having a bad day.
SPENCER MICHELS: Charlene Tschirhart helps run the free dining hall that currently serves 2200 meals a day. While there has been a slight drop in the number of food stamps recipients because of an improving economy, you wouldn't know it at St. Anthony's, where the numbers keep increasing. Tschirhart fears the food stamps cutbacks will make things even worse.
CHARLENE TSCHIRHART: There's going to be longer lines. There's going to be less at the end of those lines. Already our services maxed out in the 80's. They even became much more pressed in the 90's. And now this is like unthinkable that there would be more cuts. And there's no way that non-profits are going to make that up.
SPENCER MICHELS: Yet, non-profits, like the 181 food banks across the country that supply surplus and donated food to poor people, know that they will feel the effects of food stamps cuts. Christine Vladimiroff is president of the national food bank network, Second Harvest.
CHRISTINE VLADIMIROFF, Second Harvest Food Banks: It is not fair to say charities can do it all. We move 1 billion pounds of food, and if there are $4 billion of cuts in food stamps each year to the year 2002, that means Second Harvest and all of the food banks and all those little storefront soup kitchens would have to quadruple our production of food and resources to feed hungry Americans. That's not how it ought to be done.
SPENCER MICHELS: How it should be done, according to Social Service Director Anderson, is that more food stamps recipients should work, including drug abusers and alcoholics.
ELOISE ANDERSON: Are there enough jobs out there for people with very few skills or low level skills? Probably. But it takes a different mind-set for them. Maybe that means for these particular people that they can't lay around San Francisco. They might have to go someplace else and get a job and work.
SPENCER MICHELS: Finding a job won't restore food stamps for more than a million legal immigrants who are not yet citizens. The immigrants at this meeting were preparing to lobby state legislators for help to make up for benefits soon to be cut by the federal government. Their food stamps were due to be terminated in May, but that deadline has now been extended four months by California's governor. And California is one of forty states that has applied to the federal government for a six-month delay in implementing food stamps cuts for the other major category of recipients--able-bodied, single adults.
MARION WOODS: People understand the need to change the system.
SPENCER MICHELS: A broad spectrum of activist groups lobbied the legislature and the governor, pushing for those delays plus some form of relief. A special committee of California lawmakers is focusing its attention on how to handle cutbacks in food stamps and other welfare programs. But some advocates say the ultimate solution goes beyond local or even state government.
MARION STANDISH: The dollars are not there to do what needs to be done, and obviously that's why we need Congress. Local governments--I don't think I need to say how strapped local government is to both create jobs, find work slots, feed families, house families.
SPENCER MICHELS: In Anderson's view, which branch of government helps out is not the issue.
ELOISE ANDERSON: We've got to say to people, the expectation here in this country is that you will help yourself as much as possible, and government will help you, when necessary, in an emergency and in crisis.
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite cries that the crisis is here, there is little indication Congress will make major changes in the food stamps provisions of the welfare reform law. In the meantime, non-profits, bureaucrats, state and local governments, and, of course, food stamp recipients, are scrambling to adjust.