The National Catholic Review
George M. Anderson

A conference in Washington, D.C., with hunger as its theme? Some might assume that such a conference would be about hunger in the developing world. At this particular gathering on the first three days of April, however, the focus was on the often-hidden but widespread levels of hunger that pose a serious threat to the health of many who live here in the United States. Last fall, in fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 31 million people—almost a third of them children—were either hungry or living on hunger’s edge. The financial resources of their households were insufficient for an adequate supply of nutritious food.

Increasingly, these same households include not just the very poor, but also the so-called working poor—men and women whose part-time or minimum wage jobs do not pay enough to cover the costs of both food and housing. Housing inevitably takes precedence, and so year by year organizations like the United States Conference of Mayors, Catholic Charities USA and America’s Second Harvest (one of the groups sponsoring the conference) have been reporting that factors like high shelter costs in cities around the country have forced more and more people to turn to food pantries and soup kitchens to supplement their food supplies. The demand for emergency food services thus continues to rise. Patricia Hernandez—director of agency services at Food for Survival, a major New York City food bank—said during the lobbying on Capitol Hill on the last day of the conference that food distribution at her agency had jumped to 53 million pounds during the last fiscal year, up from 49 million pounds the year before. She expects a further increase for the next fiscal year.

The problem of domestic hunger would be still greater than it currently is were it not for several federal nutrition initiatives that have helped address the issue. Among the most important is the food stamp program. After the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, many former recipients of cash benefits who left the rolls to enter the work force dropped out of the food stamp program. For some, their earnings put them over the eligibility limit of 130 percent of the poverty line—$14,150 for a family of three. Anti-hunger advocates see this as much too low a threshold and have proposed raising it to 150 or 180 percent of the poverty line—a move that would extend eligibility to additional low-income working families in need of support as they move from welfare into the workforce. But a still greater number of people who lost food stamps were completely unaware that they remained eligible. Even under the present low threshold, many low-income working Americans do not realize that even though they are employed, they may still be entitled to food stamps because their jobs are part-time or pay very little. This latter circumstance underlines one of the themes of the conference (whose other two sponsors were the Food Research and Action Center and the National Child and Adult Care Food Program Forum)—namely, the need for greater outreach efforts.

If inadequate outreach is one barrier to greater access to food stamps, another is the length and complexity of the application forms themselves. California’s runs to 21 pages, with over 100 questions. In some jurisdictions, the questions are not only difficult to answer for those with relatively little education, but also intrusive to the point of being stigmatizing. America’s Second Harvest’s report, The Red Tape Divide, speaks of the criminalization of the applicant. One state, Ohio, goes so far as to ask whether the applicant or any member of the household is “fleeing New Jersey to avoid prosecution...or confinement after commission of a crime.” This particular question reflects an especially punitive food stamp provision of the 1996 welfare act: it rendered ineligible for life those convicted of drug-related crimes—even after their sentences had been served.

Certain related application procedures also contribute to the inference of criminality. Over two dozen states now require applicants to submit to electronic finger imaging—a polite term for what is essentially fingerprinting without the traditional moist ink pad. The impact of procedures and questions of this kind, the report concludes, makes it evident that an implied criminal stigma pervades much of the application process. As a result, many simply turn away from seeking a needed benefit, one that could rightfully be theirs because food stamps are a federal entitlement program.

Other deterrents include overly frequent recertification periods. Despite options to keep many households enrolled for as long as a year (and up to two years for elderly and disabled persons), states have reacted to pressures to keep their paperwork accurate by mandating excruciatingly short recertification periods, often every three months. This poses a significant burden for those who must take time off from work to visit their local food stamp offices. The visits themselves can require several hours—and for many in low-wage jobs, taking time off from work can lead to the docking of their already slender salaries.

To their credit, several states are attempting to reduce some of the barriers. One panelist at the conference—a food stamp outreach coordinator for the Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force—spoke of a pilot program that focused on East Portland because of its high poverty levels and low rate of participation. As part of intensive outreach efforts there, information is made available not only in English, but also in Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese. In addition, a toll-free, live-person information line was established, and arrangements were made for schools to have flyers sent home with students. The opinions of low-income residents themselves were taken into account in devising the pilot program. They were asked why they thought food stamps were not more widely used and what could be done to improve the situation. The overall result was a 38 percent increase in participation rates. Oregon is now testing a one-page application—down from the present 20-plus version—which is expected to be in use statewide by the summer of 2001.

Arizona has moved in a similar direction. Ginny Hildebrand, executive director of the Association of Arizona Food Banks, spoke not only of successful endeavors to simplify the state’s own application form—previously a confusing mix of Spanish and English—but also of ongoing attempts to eliminate the shame- and fear-inducing requirement for finger imaging. Another notable improvement was a lengthening of the recertification period for certain populations from every three months to up to a year, with additional possibilities for recertifying by mail.

Arizona is also moving to exempt the value of a vehicle in determining an applicant’s eligibility—an exemption made possible by the Agriculture Appropriations Act that was signed into law last October. This represents one of the few recent barrier-removing advances in making food stamps more available to low-income working people, especially those in rural areas who need a car to reach jobs that may be far from their homes. Under the provisions of this act, states will be offered relief from a burdensome federal rule that has made food stamp applicants ineligible if they owned a vehicle whose value exceeded the program’s federal resource limits. Currently, the value limit is $4,650—only $150 more than the original resource limit set over a quarter of a century ago. The new legislation, due to go into effect on July 1, allows states various options for establishing their own, more benign vehicle resource limits. But again, the complexity of the vehicle part of the application form is so daunting that even caseworkers may sometimes have trouble understanding the restrictions. As a result, applicants with vehicles may be mistakenly disqualified.

Barriers aside, one group unjustly excluded from receiving food stamps is made up of legal immigrants—the result of yet another of the punitive provisions of the welfare act. Although partial restorations of food stamps have been made to some legal immigrants, several hundred thousand more remain ineligible despite the fact that they are in the United States with proper documentation, working and contributing to the economy through their taxes. A report issued in March 2001 by the Urban Institute, Hardship Among Children of Immigrants, found that 37 percent of children of immigrants lived in households that find it difficult to get food—10 percentage points higher than households with children of citizens. The situation is particularly difficult for mixed households in which the head is barred from receiving food stamps, while the citizen children who were born here are eligible. The latter, however, receive only half the food stamp benefits received by the children of citizen parents. Once more, part of the difficulty lies in the complexity of the rules; when legal immigrants hear that they are not eligible, they may not realize they should emphasize the citizenship status of their children. Nor do receptionists and/or caseworkers at food stamp offices always make the effort to distinguish between the status of the parents and that of their children. As a result, legal immigrant families as a whole may unnecessarily experience hunger and food insecurity.

The situation for legal immigrants may change, however, if a bill that received much attention at the conference is enacted into law: the Kennedy-Specter Nutrition Assistance for Working Families and Seniors Act. It would restore food stamp eligibility to all legal immigrants. As the bill’s title makes clear, moreover, it would also be of benefit to senior citizens. Many elderly people currently receive only the $10 minimum benefit set in 1977. The bill calls for increasing this amount to $25 a month. Because many elderly people need special diets, they can face higher food expenses than others. Yet they have the lowest rate of food stamp participation—again because of deterrents that make applying difficult, like problems traveling to food stamp offices and the extensive documentation needed for medical deductions. Even at the present low level of benefit, medical deductions could help to increase their monthly food stamp allotment to over $40. But when they learn of the complexities involved and the degrading requirements like finger imaging, many simply give up.

To what degree legislation of this kind will be acted upon in Congress remains to be seen. During the election debates of last fall, the needs of low-income people were notably absent. So far, moreover, the new administration, with its focus on tax cuts, has given little reason to think that these needs—whether for food or shelter—will receive the attention that is called for. Indeed, a recent report by the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has highlighted a move by the administration that represents a step backward in the matter of providing food for low-income Americans. It concerns the WIC program (Supplemental Nutrition for Woman, Infants and Children), which has been among the most successful of the federal government’s nutrition initiatives. In past years, this program has received enough funding to ensure that no eligible people had to be denied. Now, however, despite one of the largest budget surpluses in recent U.S. history, the President has proposed a budget that, according to the report, “would not provide adequate funds to serve next year the number of women, infants and children [who are] on WIC today”—and this despite the fact that the number of people eligible is expected to increase in the coming year because of a rise in unemployment.

Representative Eva Clayton (Democrat of North Carolina) pointed out in her keynote address during the conference that the nation’s resources are sufficient to meet the basic needs of all. No one, she said, should go hungry. But inadequate funding for WIC and barriers like those that limit the potential of the food stamp program are indications that many—including children—will continue to experience hunger here in the richest country in the world.

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.