January 12, 2010

Food Stamp Expansion: What is the Holdup?

[Cross-posted at the DC Food For All.]

Last week, a woman came to Bread’s Southeast Legal Clinic for help getting food stamps. She had multiple sclerosis, which made cooking a difficult task. On top of that, she was also living on a fixed income of Social Security Disability Insurance -- and after paying for rent, utilities, and other costs, food of any kind was tough to fit into the budget. She attempted to apply for food stamps, but she was denied.

That same week, I saw another woman in a strikingly similar situation: in clear need, but denied food stamps. When I calculated the amount of benefits to which the two women were entitled, I came to the same unfortunate conclusion: under the District’s current policies, both clients were "over income;" their incomes were each slightly more than 130% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG), which is a threshold in qualifying for food stamps.

However, I was able to provide some signs of good news to these clients. Last year, DC passed legislation that expands the qualifications for food stamps. (We blogged extensively about this new change, back when Councilmember Michael Brown pushed the bill through to a unanimous vote in City Council.) This rule change means that households like those of the two women I met with – with incomes under 200% of FPG – will be eligible for assistance. They will no longer face hurdles like caps on assets, gross income, and net income.

200% of FPG doesn’t go far, especially in places like DC, where housing costs are high. For reference, it’s $21,600 a year for a one-person household, and $44,100 for four people. The change will be especially important for households with incomes close to 200% of FPG who have high housing costs, or who pay a significant amount for utilities, child care, child support, or medical expenses. These households may have extremely low—or no—income left after those bill are paid, yet they haven’t been able to access a program described in a recent New York Times article as “a vital safety net.”

Increasing the availability of food stamps keeps families from making difficult choices: leaving utility bills unpaid in what’s known as the “heat or eat” dilemma, or foregoing important medication or housing payments. In turn, helping people get food stamps may reduce the strain that Bread for the City and other food pantries are facing in these difficult times.

But here's the thing: in order for the changes to go into effect, the Department of Human Service’s computer system needs to be changed. These changes were first supposed to be completed on October 1. Then that was delayed until January -- and now we seem to be looking at further delays. In the meantime, many of our neighbors are in great need of this additional assistance. Even though we have attempted to learn more about what is causing these delays for months, no satisfactory answers are forthcoming.

The Income Maintenance Administration (the agency in the Department of Human Services that administers food stamps) needs to implement this change as soon as possible, or at the very least let the public know what, exactly, is causing the delays and when we can realistically see our clients’ suffering alleviated. The vagaries of “our computers need changing” and “in a few months” are not acceptable when people need food. Bread for the City will continue to work to make this change come to pass, and assure that our clients know about it and receive the benefits they are entitled to. And that will include the two clients I spoke with last week.

No comments: