Cover Story

Food stamps surge

"Food stamps surge" Continued...

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

The Brookings Institution in 2005 developed a new way to look at food stamps. Its report, "Leaving Money (and Food) on the Table," spoke of "unclaimed benefits" when eligible individuals did not sign up for food stamps. Brookings argued, "State and local leaders need to now get serious about boosting participation in the food stamp program." Later that year and in 2007, other activists and think tankers, such as the Food Research and Action Center and the National Priorities Project, offered similar messages.

The message soon spread around the country. In Vermont, the Burlington Free Press opined, "The food stamp benefit is not a welfare program; it's an entitlement program. Those who qualify are entitled to receive these government benefits." In California, Food for People leader Deborah Waxman told the Eureka Times-Standard, "This is something you've paid into just like Social Security or Medicare."

Since wealth is no barrier to receiving Social Security payments, states such as New York and Ohio waived limits on the amount of savings an income-eligible person can have and still receive stamp benefits. States did away with "stamps" for food and issued cards that look just like credit or debit cards. Poverty advocates-food bank employees in San Antonio and San Diego, AmeriCorps volunteers in New Jersey, students at California State University and other institutions-raced to sign up food stamp users, interpreting guidelines as broadly as possible.

Other organizations jumped in: H&R Block gave tax preparation clients food stamp applications and instructions on filing them. The New York City Central Labor Council, the umbrella organization for 400 member unions, made a big enrollment push. A Business Wire article last year described how "the Greater Chicago Food Depository equipped food stamp outreach coordinators with Sprint 4G-powered laptops. They crisscrossed Cook County, going from food pantries to city agencies to churches to community centers to ... speed up the sign-up process."

A journalistic reversal from the late 1990s also aided the food stamp surge. From 1996 to 2001 stories often stated that states with the lowest percentages of people on welfare were winning the competition to help people become independent. Recently, newspapers have turned that thinking upside down by viewing the greatest dependency-creators as the winners. For example, a decade ago the Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.) might have headlined one story, "New Jersey has 6th-best independence rate." Now it was, "New Jersey has 6th-worst participation rate."

Similarly, the Miami Herald reported, "Florida ranked 12th worst in the United States, with 43 percent of the state's low-income residents receiving food stamps." An alternative report could have been, "Florida ranked 12th best in the United States, with 57 percent of the state's low-income residents working to put food on the table instead of becoming dependent on government." The 1990s message-Don't get onto welfare. Don't be dependent on government-has flipped to Welfare is your right, and if you have qualms, don't think of food stamps as welfare. Think of them as an entitlement like Social Security.

Despite such pressure and financial logic, opposition to increasing dependency has popped up in places. In 2006, even before the latest surge began, a former Maine state employee, Shannon Leary, wrote in the Kennebec Journal, "The state should not take more people accepting benefits as a victory. ... During a meeting of public assistance supervisors and administrators, the person running the meeting told us that 83 percent of those who met the eligibility criteria for food stamps were receiving the benefit. We were told that was good but the goal was to have 100 percent receiving the benefit. It struck me as odd then, and still does today. Should we not be striving for less usage of benefits?"

Leary continued, "As a self-employed adult with a young family several years ago, I found myself eligible for food stamps. But I had the same determination as my parents not to use them. ... The state should not be in the business of pushing so hard to get people to take public assistance. ... We need to promote a culture that gives people the ability to be independent rather than maintain a culture where benefits are easily attainable."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in 2006 that the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services was ordering officials in two counties that "feature the state's largest Amish populations to lift dismal food-stamp participation rates." County official Tim Taylor said, "No matter how much we do, the Amish won't sign up," and Amish farmer Levi Miller said his poor neighbors would just say no: "We believe that we are our brother's keeper." After discussing putting up a billboard within an Amish enclave to promote food stamp use, state and county officials agreed that the attempt would be fruitless.


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