Thursday, September 14, 2000

The hungry get the runaround

Complex regulations push thousands out of food stamps program

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        When clerical worker Mary Faulk was told she had to renew her food stamps at the welfare office in downtown Cincinnati, she knew her boss wouldn't let her take off work.

        So, she said, “I missed the appointment and kept my job.”

[photo] Mary Faulk and her daughter, Marlene, 10, turned to the FreeStore/FoodBank when they lost $150 a month in food stamps.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Because she failed to show up, Ms. Faulk said, her case was closed and the $150 in food stamps that she and her 10-year-old daughter received each month stopped coming. Scared and desperate, Ms. Faulk turned to the FreeStore/FoodBank food pantry to get enough to eat.

        “If they didn't have this place, a lot of people would go hungry,” said Ms. Faulk, a tall, polite woman who shopped with her daughter in the musty basement at the FreeStore downtown. “Without it and my church, I don't know where I'd be."

        Ms. Faulk's experience is being played out in Cincinnati and around the country, say government officials and advocates for the hungry. At a time when welfare reform is requiring more people to work, officials say federal food stamp regulations have grown more onerous for the working poor — pushing them off the food stamp rolls in droves.

    Federal, state and local officials agree that food stamp regulations are too complex and confusing. Some examples:
    • Application forms are 12 pages long on average. In two states, Minnesota and West Virginia, forms are 36 pages long.
    • A Second Harvest study found that states routinely ask questions containing such complex terms as “deemed income” or “marital status and deprivation factor.”
    • Ohio's eight-page form asks applicants if they are fleeing New Jersey to avoid prosecution of a high misdemeanor — a question seemingly so strange that researchers dubbed it the “Soprano Clause” after the TV drama about a mafia family. State officials say that because New Jersey calls felonies high misdemeanors, the question is needed to obtain information about all felonies.
    • California asks applicants to certify they completed this question accurately: “If you are a non-citizen applying for Medi-Cal and you are not a) LPR (an alien who is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S.,) b) an amnesty alien with a valid current I-688, or c) PRUCOL (an alien permanently residing in the U.S. under the color of law), please do not fill in the shaded box for "Birthplace.'”

        Between 1996 and 1999, the number of people using food stamps nationally dropped by nearly one-third to 18 million. The number plummeted 39 percent in Ohio to just over 600,000 and 18 percent in Kentucky to almost 400,000. And in Hamilton County, the numbers have plunged even further — dropping almost in half to 49,000.

        With more people turning to food pantries and soup kitchens, critics of the $18 billion federal food stamp program — including those who administer it — say people stop using food stamps not because they are less needy but because the program is so flawed.

        They say food stamp benefits can be too low; applicants are overwhelmed by lengthy forms and complex regulations; confusion of eligibility requirements is widespread; and caseworkers caught up in a bureaucratic quagmire have little incentive to help people get the benefits they need.

        “The food stamp program is an antiquated, outdated, screwy bureaucratic system that does not meet the needs of the working poor, elderly, handicapped or children,” said Joel Potts, an executive assistant in Ohio's Job and Family Services Department.

        “It's the most bureaucratic program in the whole state or federal structure,” he said. “Applying for food stamps is worse than filling out the long form of a tax return.”

        A study released last month by America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest food bank, found that food stamp application forms are 12 pages long on average and take about five hours and two visits to complete. In addition, the forms pose questions on everything from whether applicants own burial plots to whether they've given blood.

        “You have to have a college education to fill these things out,” complained Judith Martin, 40, of Cincinnati, who has relied on food stamps periodically over the years. “Half the time people don't know what they've signed off on with these forms, they just know they're hungry.”

        Vicki Aug-Williams, head of social services for the FreeStore, said the hassles often outweigh the benefits. Ohioans on average are given $71 a month in food stamps, but single people — particularly the elderly — may receive as little as $10.

        “They can't negotiate the department of human services and they don't want to go down there because it's just too tough on them,” Ms. Aug-Williams said.

        Nor does the frustration end when the forms have been filled out. Many people must wait a month for their food stamp cards to be activated. To the hungry, Ms. Aug-Williams said, “that's a long time.”

        And activated cards don't always work properly, said Tashia Cannady, of Roselawn, who depends on the $145 a month she gets in food stamps to feed her two children, 2 and 5.

        “You call your caseworker millions and millions of times to get it turned on,” she said.

        Mindy Good, communications director for the Hamilton County Human Services Department, said caseworkers are also frustrated with complex federal rules, particularly those requiring quarterly food-stamp recertification.

        “If you have a low-income job and I told you that you have to take four days off a year to come down and re-certify, what are you going to say to me?” Ms. Good asked.

        Congress must reauthorize the food stamp program in 2002 and officials at all levels of government believe it is ripe for reform.

        Mr. Potts said federal officials have fined Ohio millions of dollars because caseworkers can't properly follow the complex rules.

        Mr. Potts also noted that food stamp recipients cannot own a car worth more than $4,650 — an amount that has been raised by Congress by only $150 in the past 20 years.

        “It's ridiculous,” he said.

        He and others say the $600 million Ohioans receive each year should be in the form of a block grant so the state can create more flexible rules.

        “You can't focus on feeding the hungry in a sanction environment,” he said.

        Bonny O'Neil, associate deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, acknowledged that sanctions levied against states may be “tipping the balance” against people who need help.

        But she said sanctions are needed to ensure people aren't abusing the system. She also opposes block grants, noting the amount spent by the federal government on food stamps dropped in the past four years from almost $25 billion to $18 billion.

        If a recession hits, Ms. O'Neil said, the cost could easily climb back up again. “The cost of food stamps increase during a crisis, but under a block grant the money states would get is capped,” she said.

        Still, Ms. O'Neil acknowledged that the strong economy alone can't explain why people are no longer getting food stamps. Food stamp participation has dropped three times faster than the poverty rate and 10 million households in the U.S. continue to be at risk for hunger. Just 63 percent of those who are eligible for food stamps get them.

        “We'd have to agree with folks who say the program is complicated and difficult,” Ms. O'Neil said.

        Ms. O'Neil said many people are leaving the program because they erroneously think they are no longer eligible for food stamps once they start working.

        Stephen Gibbs, executive director of the FreeStore in Cincinnati, said some caseworkers are offered extra pay if they maintain error-free caseloads, a task made much easier if fewer people use food stamps.

        “One of the ways to do well (as a social worker) is not to leave the pesky food stamp cases running loose,” he said.

        Ms. Good, however, maintains that incentive programs have little to do with why caseworkers don't want to deal with the food stamp program.

        “Workers will tell you it's not about the bonuses but that food stamp cases are so hard to administer they become a pain in the neck,” she said. “The regulations are just nutty.”

        Officials at Ohio's Second Harvest, which supplies 2,700 emergency food pantries statewide, say they are deeply concerned that people who leave the food stamp rolls seem to be turning to food pantries and soup kitchens.

        “What we saw in '98 (over '97) was a 19 percent decrease in food stamp participation and a 20 percent increase in food bank usage,” said David Maywhoor, executive director of the agency.

        Statistics show that only 40 percent of the people served by America's Second Harvest nationwide received food stamps, al though most were eligible. In Cincinnati, most of the 16,271 people last year served by the FreeStore were eligible for food stamps.

        But less than half got them.

        “Basically, there are an awful lot of people who should be getting food stamps that aren't,” said Mr. Gibbs, who is also chairman of the state food bank organization.

        Ms. Norris said food pantries are not a good substitute for food stamps. Pantries must ration the amount of food handed out, are staffed by volunteers and can have erratic hours, and sometimes run out of food and must turn people away.

        “Food pantries are just meant to serve people who are in crisis, not sustain their long-term needs,” Ms. Norris said.

        Marilyn Sesler, public education director for the task force, said the state must do more to educate people that help is available.

        “We have a lot of resources to meet the hunger needs in this state, yet children are going hungry,” Ms. Selser said. “We as a state need to look at this and say, "We can do better.'”

        Sabrina Williams, 44, of Walnut Hills, understands why people would choose to go to food pantries instead of the welfare office. She described the entire food stamp application process as a nightmare.

        “I went and got the application, it was like filling out a book. I took it back in. Then I come back and waited for an interview. That's crazy to me,” she said. “In the meantime they give you a piece of paper that tells you where to go get food. I guess they think people ought to go begging.”

        Ms. Williams said she earns $8 an hour working part time while pursuing an associate degree and attending drug and alcohol counseling. She's trying to turn her life around.

        But she said she falls short each month when paying bills and must depend on the FreeStore food pantry for help.

        “It's kind of disgusting at times,” she said. “They (government officials) do make you get back in the race, which is good, but when you are down you'd think they'd do something so you can eat.”

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