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California discourages needy from signing up for food stamps

The state's participation rate is the lowest in the U.S. — only about half of those qualified get the aid — making it the envy of more-conservative states.

August 17, 2013|By Evan Halper
  • Liberal California discourages eligible people from signing up for food stamps to buy groceries, at rates conservative activists envy.
Liberal California discourages eligible people from signing up for food… (Matt Rourke / Associated…)

WASHINGTON — It was not surprising that Texas held out.

For years, Texas was among a handful of states that required every resident seeking help with grocery bills to first be fingerprinted, an exercise typically associated with criminals.

Even though Republican Gov. Rick Perry ultimately got rid of the policy, Texas — always seeking to whittle down "big government" — remains one of the most effective states at keeping its poor out of the giant federal food stamp program.

But it is not No. 1. That distinction belongs to California.

Liberal California discourages eligible people from signing up for food stamps at rates conservative activists elsewhere envy. Only about half of the Californians who qualify for help get it.

That stands in contrast to other states, including some deeply Republican ones, that enroll 80% to 90% of those with incomes low enough to qualify.

That public policy paradox — one of the country's most liberal states is the stingiest on one of the nation's biggest benefit programs — has several causes, some intentional, some not. It also has two clear consequences: Millions of Californians don't get help, and the state leaves hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money on the table.

The federal government pays for almost all of the food stamp program, which provides cash aid to about 46 million Americans at a cost of $74.6 billion this year. States administer the program.

In Washington, those costs have generated a furious debate that will heat up again next month when Congress returns from its summer recess.

While the federal government pays the bill, states get an economic boost from more people with money to spend on groceries.

Cash for food is so close to free money for states that several, such as Florida, with a Republican-controlled Legislature and a conservative GOP governor, pay contractors to scour the landscape for people to enroll in the program.

"It is impossible to get states to do conservative types of reform to this program," said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has tried and failed to get GOP-controlled states to enact tougher enrollment standards.

"The things they could do, they don't," he said. "It would bring them political controversy and no financial gain for their state. It is like asking them to jump into a buzz saw and to bring their governor along."

Not so in California, where onerous paperwork requirements, inhospitable county benefits offices and confusing online applications often prevail. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest study reflects the participation rate in 2010, agency enrollment figures released since then leave California stuck in last place.

In California, sometimes even those who qualify get rejected, as understaffed agencies prove unable to properly process applications.

Edlyn Countee had no idea she was eligible for food stamps until a friend who volunteered at a food bank brought it up. The 61-year-old from Oakland applied. She was rejected. "They said I made too much money," she said. "I figured, 'There goes that.'"

The friend insisted that there had been a mistake and that Countee should keep at it. The advice was solid, but it took an attorney from Bay Area Legal Aid calling social services officials, and Countee filling out an affidavit, before she got her $101 per month.

In Washington, the debate over food stamps has pitted Republicans, concerned about how much the program has grown, against Democrats who defend it. But that partisan divide does not truly reflect the reality of food stamp use back in lawmakers' districts.

Much of the program's growth involves the deep recession that started in 2008. But a big part stems from states that have actively tried to boost enrollment.

California has been slow to follow, as 36-year-old Sarah Palmer, a single mother from the East Bay city of Albany, discovered when the state threatened to cut her off unless she could produce receipts every few months detailing her child-care costs.

"Every three months I had to ask the day care to write a note detailing what I paid," she said. Staff would keep forgetting. "Finally, one day I had to go in and tell them. 'You know, we are receiving food stamps. I really need you to write this note for me.'…. It was humiliating."

In most other states, Palmer would not have to produce such receipts; few require as much paperwork and none still require people to keep proving their eligibility as often.

"People are being denied benefits because of policies California chooses to employ," said Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate at the nonprofit Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Some of those policies came into place under two Republican governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned on promises to vigorously root out government waste.

Schwarzenegger vetoed several bills to end the state's fingerprinting of food stamp recipients.

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