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Too Much Hunger by Half

June 22, 2002

Children in California go hungry because state and county officials can't make the food stamp program work right. California's program, though improving, is the most error-plagued in the nation, according to U.S. data released in April.

In the past fiscal year, nearly one in five households got the wrong amount in the colorful booklets containing $1, $5 and $10 coupons that can be used like cash to buy groceries. An estimated 124,520 households got more than the amount to which they were entitled; 68,486 households got less. In addition, less than half of those who qualify for food stamps receive them in California--though 1.7 million people get a monthly allotment, an additional 1.8 million do not.

Working people qualify when their monthly income is 130% or less of the federal poverty guideline, or about $1,533 a month for a family of three. Some don't want the government handout or they want to avoid the hassle and so shun the program, which every month provides recipients with an average of $78. Some families lose out because the breadwinner can't get off work to fill out the reams of paperwork in person. Many miss out because they don't know they are eligible.

Regardless of the reasons, when low-income adults don't get food stamps, children too often don't get enough to eat--as was the case for a brother and sister living with their widowed father just west of downtown. Until their father got food stamps, they lived on the federally subsidized breakfasts, lunches and snacks their public school provided. They told Times staff writer Carla Rivera that if there was nothing to eat at home after school they had to "wait for tomorrow."

No child should have to wait for tomorrow to eat. California issues $1.5 billion worth of food stamps a year through county-run programs. That number should be $3 billion. That figure should continue to grow because Congress has restored the benefit to legal immigrants who have been in the U.S. at least five years. Washington has lost patience and is about to levy a $115.8-million penalty for California's mistakes, which would only take more food from the mouths of hungry children.

Fixing the problem will largely require fixing the Los Angeles County program, which leads the nation with an error rate of 23%. The county blames that failure on an overly complex and glitch-prone computer. But bedtime stories about a big, bad, bug-ridden computer don't make it any easier for children with growling stomachs to fall asleep.

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