April 1, 2009

gchatting Food Stamps

Matt: Hey V! We got what I think is an interesting comment on our food stamps post from a couple days ago. A blog reader Imina was commenting on how this increase could be beneficial to some but could also encourage families who don't really need help to receive public benefits.

Valentine: That is an interesting comment. The public benefits system is really complicated...I think that makes it difficult for most people to "get" it.

Matt: Yeah. Made more complicated because each state and program has different requirements, right?

Valentine: Yes! There are lots of different requirements and different areas have vastly different costs of living, so it is difficult to set a blanket number to determine who needs help and who doesn't. Everything is calculated based on the "Federal Poverty Line" (FPL)...but very few people actually know what the FPL is.

Matt: What is the federal poverty line?

Valentine: The federal poverty line...which hasn't been recalculated since the early 80's...is now $10,830 for a single person or $22,050 for a family of 4. Generally speaking, you have to be within 130% of the FPL to be eligible for food stamps.

Matt: So a senior citizen could be ineligible for food stamps if their income is greater than $14,000 (including Social Security and all of that)!?

Valentine: Exactly.

Matt: And since the FPL doesn't take into consideration geographic region, a person living in DC with our cost of living is treated the same way as a person living in Peoria, Illinois with their cost of living?

Valentine: Right...that's why DC is proposing the important step to increase the eligibility for food stamps for District residents. So first, let's talk about what it means to be trying to live in DC within 200% of the FPL.

Matt: Yes.

Valentine: The average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment in the District is $1,050 per month...food prices are on the rise everywhere, and especially higher in urban areas...we both know it would be next to impossible to survive in this city on less than $1,000 per month without a whole lot of help!

Matt: So, DC is looking to raise food stamps to 200% of the FPL. On top of the income requirement, what are the other specific qualifications for the program?

Valentine: There are other qualifications, but they can be very complicated. There is an asset limit (a person can't have a certain amount of savings or other assets to fall back on), as well as a number of individual nuances. Moreover, a person still has to apply for food stamps and recertify every 6-12 months or whenever something changes (income, family structure, address, etc.).

Matt: That's what I thought. What about seniors? If someone worked and is now receiving social security, how much would they be making? Would they be in poverty?

Valentine: Unfortunately, while someone who is now living on social security is technically above the poverty line, they are just barely so. Here is a snapshot of February's Social Security payments. 34,876,000 seniors received social security payments nationwide (these are those who worked, are now retired, and don't receive any additional assistance due to disability). The average monthly benefit for this group is $1,156.00...or $13,872 per year...or 128% of the federal poverty line. And since the bill also discusses TANF, I'll mention that the maximum TANF benefit is only $428 per month (assuming a single parent of 2 kids).

Matt: Okay.

Valentine: And going back to the original comment about this change potentially allowing people who don't really need food stamps to receive them: with every law or adjustment there is the possibility that someone might abuse the system, but the numbers of people who are doing their best and need all the help they can get just to survive and raise their families far outweigh (and I mean dramatically outweigh) any potential people who are attempting to scam the system. Getting (and keeping) food stamps is no easy process...and asking for help is no easy feat. I think the District is contemplating a great step to help those who need it. That's the point and the Councilmembers who are working on this proposal should be supported.

Matt: Nice. Thanks for the info, V!

Valentine: Any time, friend! And don't forget, the hearing is on April 20th at 11 am in the Wilson Building. More info to come!

*Corrections have been issued to this post. Thanks to our legal & social service departments for lending their experience!


Kristin Valentine said...

Something I recently learned...I believe it's true... the Food Stamp Program is no longer actually the Food Stamp Program. It's SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program)--- or something like that....

povertyandpolicy said...

You're certainly right about the complexity of food stamp eligibility requirements. I tried reading the regulations in connection with my posting on the pending Food Stamp Expansion Act. Many pages long and virtually impossible for a non-expert to understand.

Your point about problems with the federal poverty line are right on target too. When I wrote about it (How Many Poor People Are There in America?), I did some research re. cost-of-living in D.C. In 2005, Wider Opportunities for Women figured that, for a family of three, self-sufficiency in the District would require an annual income of $53,634. The poverty threshold (very similar to the FPL) was then $15,735.

But it's important to know that the pending D.C. food stamp legislation wouldn't only increase the eligibility ceiling to 200% of FPL. It would also create a low-cost TANF-funded service that would establish "categorical eligibility" for applicants who meet the threshold income test. This would eliminate the adjustments for assets, etc.