WASHINGTON — The food stamp program, struggling to serve needy Americans who increasingly rely on jobs rather than welfare, ran into serious difficulties last year in the nation's largest states, including California, where less than half of those eligible for benefits received them.
On Friday, the federal government released figures showing that several major states are growing worse at getting the right amount of food stamps to those who apply for them.
Analysts said those errors reflect the complexity of serving large populations of working poor people and immigrants--notably in New York and California--as states contend with strict federal guidelines and try to serve beneficiaries whose incomes--and eligibility--change frequently.
The new statistics stand against a backdrop of reports showing that millions of people who qualify for food stamps do not get them. California Food Policy Advocates, a nonprofit group that seeks to combat hunger, found that only 45% of eligible Californians were receiving food stamps. Meanwhile, rising demand at food banks has been reported in many regions of the nation.
Taken together, the government and private reports raise new questions about whether the U.S. social safety net is adequate in the aftermath of welfare reform, as millions who no longer get benefit checks--but remain poor--now need food and other forms of assistance that they sometimes do not receive.
"There's a flaw in the [food stamp] program if a family is doing everything that the welfare system wants them to do and it's harder to get benefits" when they're working than when they were on welfare, said Stacy Dean, an analyst at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In Los Angeles County, food stamp rolls have dropped 36% since 1995, according to the Food Policy Advocates, even as local food banks and pantries have been struggling to keep up with growing demand. The pantry at the Harbor Interfaith Shelter in San Pedro has recorded a sharp increase in families needing food, said Executive Director Mary L. Gimenez-Caulder.
The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which distributes food to 960 charities that feed about 350,000 people each week, also has seen a rising demand over the last year, said spokesman Darren Hoffman.
Many of those requesting handouts are working people who have left the welfare system and have found low-paying jobs but are unaware that they still may qualify for food stamps, Gimenez-Caulder said.
The data released Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided a fresh look at "error rates" among the states--that is, the percentage of food stamp benefits being given out that is above or below what an applicant is supposed to get. The gauge itself draws the ire of some anti-hunger activists, who argue that federal pressure to cut down on errors has led to excessively tough application rules, causing hardship even in times of prosperity.
A high accuracy rate "doesn't mean that more people are being fed who are hungry," said George Manalo-LeClair, legislative director for California Food Policy Advocates. "It doesn't mean that your customer service was better. It just means you gave the right amount of benefits."
Indeed, an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that from 1994 to 1999, states with major improvement in their food stamp error rates--Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming--also experienced larger-than-average drops in enrollment.
Broadly, food stamps are targeted at households with incomes as high as 130% of the poverty line, which is an annual income of $17,050 for a family of four. While benefit levels vary with income, the average is about $80 per person each month, Dean said.
In a bid to steer the right benefits to eligible people, states have imposed exhaustive applications and subsequent reviews. But critics argue that, in the process, they have discouraged many potential beneficiaries.
California's application form, for example, is more than 10 pages.
The paperwork and time needed to apply for food stamps are a hindrance for many working poor, said Gimenez-Caulder, especially if they are newly employed and reluctant or constrained from taking time off work.
"The paperwork and bureaucracy . . . pretty much turns people away; they don't have the time to fill out forms," she said.
Many of these families rely instead on emergency food such as that provided at Harbor Interfaith Shelter, which serves about 1,700 people each month. On a recent day, the shelves that normally hold such staples as rice, beans, pasta, canned vegetables, powdered milk and peanut butter were nearly empty because of the high demand.
"It's been hard," said Crystal Moten, 18, a single mother of two children who was among those at Harbor Interfaith seeking food. "I rely on food pantries because I haven't been able to get the information [about food stamps] that I need."