FOOD STAMPS GOING UNCLAIMED
BYLINE: SONJA ISGER, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer DATE: October 14, 2007 PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL) EDITION: FINAL SECTION: LOCAL PAGE: 1C MEMO: Ran all editions.
Info box at end of text.
Tens of thousands of people in Palm Beach County who are poor enough to qualify to get grocery money from the government aren't getting it.
In a recent national county-by-county analysis, Palm Beach County ranks among the worst when it comes to getting food stamps to those who need it, reaching only 29.6 percent of those whose income would qualify them. That means of nearly 181,000 qualifying residents, more than 127,000 are missing out.
Only five other counties with populations that top 1 million have worse records, according to a study released in August by the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that examines the local impact of federal budget policies.
Broward County is ranked seventh. About 25.6 percent of the income-qualified poor in Martin County get food stamps, but for a county with just over 100,000 population, that wasn't low enough to land it in the bottom 25 among similar-size counties. St. Lucie County had much better numbers: 42.8 percent of its income-qualified poor receive food stamps.
The news, while not necessarily surprising to those who dole out that money or work with the hungry, has spurred a renewed effort to turn those numbers around in Palm Beach County.
When it comes to feeding the hungry, the county simply can't afford to leave the money on the table, said Perry Borman, director of the Community Food Alliance, a group that collaborates with governments, charities and other organizations that work with the hungry.
"The data on food insecurity in Palm Beach County is frightening," Borman said. He points to a local survey conducted two years ago that revealed that one-third of households with incomes of $35,000 or less ran out of food before they had money to buy more.
Food stamps would help, he said.
The Food Stamp Program was established in 1964 and is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While there are other government food and nutrition programs, including the school lunch program, school breakfast program and WIC, the Food Stamp Program is the largest, claiming 1.2 percent of total federal spending and reaching 23.2 million people in 2004, the year examined by the study.
The state Department of Children and Families, which administers the program locally, is eager to work with Borman to figure out what is keeping people from collecting, said Alan Abramowitz, DCF's acting administrator in Palm Beach County.
What are the advantages? On average, qualifying Florida residents receive $99 a month, but benefits can run as high as $542 for a family of four.
So why aren't the poor getting the stamps?
There are many possible answers.
For one, it's not enough to be poor.
Even if your income falls within the Food Stamp Program's guideline -- up to $2,238 a month for a family of four, for example -- you may not qualify for a variety of reasons; those in the country illegally, for instance, would not. (Undocumented immigrants can receive food stamps for their U.S.-born children.)
"A lot of poor people can't get food stamps even if the need is significant," said Anita Dancs, research director at the National Priorities Project, where the study was conducted.
Then there's the matter of stigma.
The actual stamps have been gone for years, replaced by plastic bank cards that would seem to more easily blend in the grocery checkout line. Yet, Dancs said, shame still may hold some potential recipients back, particularly the elderly.
Finally, some people who qualify probably don't know they do.
Promoting the program
Locally, the DCF and the Community Food Alliance have crunched the numbers of food stamp recipients by ZIP code. They plan to target residents in Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay, downtown West Palm Beach, Mangonia Park, Lake Worth and Delray Beach -- areas where the number of poor is high and participation in the Food Stamp Program is low.
They plan to put up posters in supermarkets promoting the program and its benefits. They also are working with other social service organizations, hoping that if people come in for help from an agency, such as the Area Agency on Aging, counselors there can tell them they also qualify for food stamps.
And, thanks to a nationally recognized online application system used here, counselors could go on the Web and help qualified residents register on the spot, said Kathie Beeson, DCF community liaison.
Still, more research needs to be done, Borman said
"We've just started working on this issue locally," Borman said. "The good news is DCF doesn't want to be the worst. I think we're making a good start."
Counties with populations in excess of 1millionand the percentage of qualified people who collect food stamps:
Rank County (state) Percent
Source: The National Priorities Project
Copyright (c) 2007 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.
December 7, 2007, New York Times Editorial, Holding the Hungry Hostage, editorial staff.
It is a travesty that the fates of some 35 million Americans who need food aid are tied to the farm bill, which comes up every five years. The House passed an inadequate version last summer, and the Senate has failed to advance its own. It is time to ask why feeding the hungry must include a trough for multibillion-dollar agribusiness.
As it has pressed to keep its subsidies, about $26 billion in the current bill, agribusiness has contributed $415 million to federal political campaigns since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The hungry don't have much of a lobby. But those who cannot consistently put food on the table need the help promised in the bill, including more than $4 billion in improvements in the food stamp program and for emergency assistance. If the aid remains in the farm bill, and if it remains in a logjam, aid would continue at current, inadequate levels.
Food stamps regularly help 26 million people get something to eat. But the previous farm bill did not peg benefits to inflation, so as food prices have skyrocketed, families who were just barely getting by are now in a much worse place. Some 800,000 food stamp recipients disproportionately elderly or disabled are being told to make due on a minimum benefit of $10 per month. That amount has remained unchanged in 30 years.
As The Times recently reported, food banks and soup kitchens across the nation are being depleted by demand so overwhelming that the needy are being turned away, or given help so minimal, it is hardly worth the energy expended to get it.
Washington needs to do better. The Senate could start by rallying around the sensible legislation sponsored by Senators Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, and Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana. It would replace crop supports with an insurance program to cover actual losses, and put the savings, potentially billions of dollars, to better use, including for food aid.
Or the Congress could make a bold statement and begin to restructure funding. It could get money to food banks faster if it came out of any bill but the farm bill.
The Bush administration has correctly opposed the excesses of the farm subsidies program, but it could do more. It could finance additional and immediate food assistance by dipping deeper into money culled from customs receipts to support farm and nutrition programs.
Since their beginnings, hunger relief and nutrition programs have been inextricably tied to helping farmers. That may have made sense once. But as recent maneuvers on the farm bill have shown, it no longer works.
Republicans by far the biggest beneficiaries of agribusiness largess are using the advantage of being a bare minority to try to attach a flurry of amendments on immigration, taxes and any other issue but the desperate one at hand. Farm state senators look the other way so a bill, warts and all, can get done.
They need to put America's hungry first.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company