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Californians Go Hungry Without Food Stamps

New America Media, News Report, Edwin Okongo Posted: Dec 23, 2009

Californias restrictive and lengthy food stamp application process might be discouraging eligible families from accessing benefits, according to a new report.

The report released Tuesday by the California Budget Project (CBP), a nonpartisan public policy research group, recommends that the state overhaul its Food Stamp Program (FSP) to remove some of the obstacles that prevent needy families from applying.

Citing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the report said that only 48 percent (about 2.9 million) of eligible Californians applied for FSP benefits in 2007, the most recent year for which USDA numbers were available. Californias participation rate of qualified applicants ranked second to last among all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The reports co-author, CBP senior policy analyst Scott Graves, said that although FSP enrollment had risen rapidly during the economic downturn, fewer eligible Californians applied for food stamps because of the strict rules.

The state still has many policies in place that impede access, said Graves.

Graves said getting more eligible Californians into the program was a win-win scenario for California because in addition to benefiting struggling families, food stamps help struggling local economies.

CBP recommended that California drop the fingerprinting requirement, which the California state auditor concluded, may add an element of fear to the process and discourage eligible people from applying. California is one of only three states that require fingerprinting, even though the federal government which provides almost all of the funds for food stamps does not mandate that applicants submit fingerprints.

California is also one of two states that require applicants to submit paperwork to FSP administrators four times a year in order to retain benefits. Other states have adopted federal guidelines requiring beneficiaries to report only once every six months, as long as their income remains at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.

We think California should move as quickly as possible to remove this red tape, Graves said.

According to the report, 76.1 percent of California households that received food stamps had children compared to the national average of 53.1 percent. A majority, 93.4 percent, of the families that received food stamps lived below the poverty line of $16,000 for a family of three. An estimated 12.5 percent of the households included one or more non-citizens.

In 2009, the FSP provided $1.50 per person per meal, or about $261 per California household, according to the report.

The report also found out that legal immigrants who may wish to exclude themselves from the program and only apply for other members of the household, including children, did not have the alternative to opt-out. The report recommended giving adults the choice to opt out in order to boost participation among eligible Californians, including foster children, victims of domestic violence, homeless people and those in alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs.

Another policy that the report said was impeding participation in the program was Californias asset test. Federal rules require that food stamp benefits be extended only to households with assets worth less than $2,000, or $3,000 if the household includes an elderly person or a person with a disability. The primary determinant of assets is a savings account, Graves said.

States have the flexibility to set less restrictive asset rules or even eliminate the asset test altogether, which would help bring more low-income families into the program, Graves said.

Graves said that although California had loosened the asset rules, only households with children under the age of 18 had benefited from the exemption. He recommended that the state consider easing the rules for all households.

The important thing to remember here is that if you remove the asset test, you still leave in place very restrictive income limits, Graves said. So really what this is meant to do is help those low-income families who have managed to put a little money away for some financial security to keep them from having to spend to get below the $2,000 limit in order to qualify for very important nutritional assistance.

CBP executive director Jean Ross said that easing the rules could help state and local economies. According to the report, every dollar spent on food stamps increased economic activity by $1.73.

When families have food stamps, it frees up money that they may have previously spent on food, to buy clothing and put gas in their car, Ross said. They will pay sales tax on those other purchases, so there is a direct financial benefit.

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Going Hungry in Americas Bread Basket

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