Let's bring food stamps up to date
Until recently, food stamps were paper coupons that people cashed in at the checkout counter. Now, in most places, people put a plastic card into a machine. Soon, there will be only plastic cards. Why do we continue to call this process "food stamps"? We need to change the name.
We also need to change the program. It was designed to supplement the food budget of poor families, primarily those on welfare, then called AFDC. It was also intended to help a limited number of poor working families and seniors. Since AFDC was abolished in 1996 and replaced with TANF, the welfare rolls have been cut in half. More than a third of those on food stamps were either eliminated by new restrictions, discouraged by bad treatment and unnecessary paperwork or disqualified by slightly rising salaries during the second half of the '90s.
When President Clinton introduced welfare reform in his 1992 presidential campaign he said that the way to reduce welfare was to make work pay. For tens of millions of Americans, work does not pay. They cannot feed their families. There are several steps that our government can take to make work pay, such as raising the minimum wage and increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. Another effective step is to expand food stamps as a wage supplement for poor working families, and to make sure that families that are eligible receive this much needed benefit. Here are several suggestions for extending the food stamp program to millions of families.
Outreach. Many of the families who are eligible do not know it. Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) formed partnerships with dozens of grassroots programs to develop effective ways of telling people about the program and processing the applications. We need to identify the most effective of those programs and fund them elsewhere. Also, we need to work with media experts to create a national awareness campaign.
Simplify the application form. There is no need for 10 or 20 pages. Many states and counties have created one to two page forms. The USDA should give awards for the most compact and effective forms and promote them nationally.
Make the application process more accessible and user friendly. Open offices on weekends to accommodate working people. Allow more contact by phone, fax and email. Allow people to sign up for food stamps when they obtain other benefits such as Medicaid. Allow unscheduled interviews for the first visit and let clients sign up then. Schedule subsequent interviews at the client's convenience where possible. Be clear about what papers are needed, and accommodate language needs. Have clear wording on food stamp notices. Most important, inspire workers by convincing them that they are the first line of defense against hunger, and that they are promoting self-reliance.
Allow semi-annual reporting instead of quarterly.
Allow ownership of a reasonably priced car. Only five percent of workers take public transportation to work. How can the government expect people to get to work and off welfare without a car?
.Allow an automatic six months of food stamps for any family that has used up it's time on TANF.
Use state waivers for unemployed single adults. The current law allows only three months of food stamps every three years for single unemployed adults aged 18 to 49. In areas of high unemployment that exceed the national average by at least one fifth over a two year period, states can exempt 15 percent or more of those ineligible. USDA should encourage the use of that waiver. States should not apply the time limit to persons living in a house with a child under 18.
Give a housing allowance. Housing costs vary in different regions of the country. Therefore Congress should develop a more equitable method of determining the allowance that is more realistic for the region.
End finger printing. End the costly fingerprinting of applicants. This discourages families from applying and has not proven effective in reducing fraud.