Food-stamp use drops sharply: experts concerned [USA} FWD

Tom Boland (
Sat, 27 Mar 1999 17:41:38 -0800 (PST)

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FWD  Christian Science Monitor - THURSDAY, MARCH 18, 1999


     Sharp drop in food- stamp use has experts
     concerned people are being denied aid.

     Linda Feldmann
     Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


Amid the rah-rah atmosphere of plummeting welfare
rolls, declines in other forms of public aid to the
poor - food stamps and health care - are sounding
alarm bells.

Food-stamp enrollment has shown a dramatic 28
percent decline in the past four years, with almost 8
million people leaving the rolls.

Participation in Medicaid, the health-insurance
program for the poor, has shown a smaller net
decline, unusual for a program that traditionally has
only expanded.

    Norwood, a single mother in Baltimore, fought to
    get Medicaid benefits restored. Experts worry
    states are wrongly denying people food and
    medical aid.
    (ANDY NELSON - STAFF) [photo caption]

What's behind the drop? Certainly, the strong
economy can account for some people, who are
now earning too much to qualify for benefits.
Changes in the food-stamp laws, including the
exclusion of some legal immigrants, account for
another part of the drop in that program.

But advocacy groups, members of Congress, and
federal government officials are worried that states
are "diverting" people - intentionally or
unintentionally - from food and medical programs
that they're entitled to, as agencies focus on getting
people off public assistance and into jobs.

"We're quite concerned about what's safe to say is a
disturbing trend," says a government official,
speaking on background.

Another problem, say advocates, is the bureaucratic
mistakes that persist in a system that's still working
to de-link cash assistance from other forms of aid to
the poor.

Princess Norwood, a single mother of four in
Baltimore, knows what it's like to have the financial
floor fall from beneath her. In late January, she
received a letter from the state announcing she was
losing cash benefits and medical assistance for the
whole family.

  Norwood and her eight children live with her
  sister, Princess, and her four children in a
  Baltimore row house. Both women are single
  mothers on welfare.

According to the welfare office, she had too many
absences from her work training program and was
being "sanctioned." Regardless, she should not
have lost her medical assistance.

When she was concerned her son was ill, she
treated him herself, instead of taking him to a
doctor. She also contacted a Baltimore legal aid
clinic that helped her fight her case. On Tuesday,
she learned all her benefits are being restored.

"When I said I had a lawyer, they paid attention,"
says Ms. Norwood, an upbeat young woman who,
with her sister Marquetta, and Marquetta's eight
kids, dreams of escaping their cramped,
lead-paint-drenched row house, and moving into
subsidized housing outside the city.

Peter Sabonis, the lawyer who helped Norwood,
says he doesn't believe the state was intentionally
trying to deny her benefits she qualified for. He
attributes her loss of Medicaid to state workers who
don't know how to use new computer programs
that have "de-linked" the two programs.

A spokeswoman for Maryland's Department of
Human Resources says cases like Norwood's are

In New York City, it's a different story. In January,
a federal judge found that the city was illegally
blocking people from applying for Medicaid and
food stamps and ordered compliance with federal
regulations. After that ruling, the federal agency that
administers food stamps sent a letter to all state
welfare commissioners, reminding them they must
continue to encourage people to apply for food
stamps even if they've been diverted from applying
for cash assistance.

    US Deptartement of Agriculture

Why the decline?

Much remains unknown about why Medicaid and
food stamps rolls are declining. Studies are under
way, and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) of Connecticut,
chairwoman of the House Ways and Means human
resources subcommittee, is planning to hold

Preliminary research on food stamps by advocacy
groups shows about 10 percent of the caseload
decline is a result of the 1996 welfare reform that
changed eligibility for food stamps - namely, the
removal of benefits to about 700,000 legal
immigrants (some of whom have since regained

Another portion, between 28 to 45 percent of the
caseload drop, could be associated with
improvements in the economy, according to the
research group Mathematica. The rest of the decline,
the group suggested, is a result of the de-linking of
cash assistance and other benefits.

The newly reinforced stigma around public
assistance may also be discouraging people from
applying for food stamps and Medicaid, advocates
say. Another problem is many people simply may
not understand that while they no longer qualify for
cash aid, they may qualify for other help.

"I think people still generally believe if they aren't
eligible for welfare, they're not going to be eligible
for Medicaid," says Ron Pollack, executive director
of Families USA, a health-care advocacy group.

Another category of uninsured are people who left
welfare for work and received up to a year of
transitional Medicaid, but when that period ended,
still were in low-wage jobs that didn't provide
health coverage. This category of working poor is
also increasingly showing up at soup kitchens.
Their incomes are just above the level that qualifies
them for food stamps, but when bills are due, food
money is often the first to go.

The annual US Conference of Mayors report on
hunger and homelessness, released in December,
found that demand for emergency food assistance in
the surveyed cities was up 14 percent over the
previous year. The decline in poverty rates is well
below the 28 percent decline in food stamps from
1994 to 1998.

Between 1994 and 1997, the enrollment in Medicaid
has declined from 40.5 million to 40.3 million
people. In fact, enrollment should have increased,
advocates say, because of expanded eligibility for

'Public charge' issue

One factor that may discourage legal immigrants
from applying for benefits is the brewing issue of
"public charge." When a legal immigrant seeks to
change his immigration classification, the
Immigration and Naturalization Service can look at a
family's history and determine if they're a drain on
public resources, or a public charge.

Since welfare reform, there has been no clarification
of which types of assistance are considered public
charge programs. Historically, food stamps weren't
included. Now, people aren't sure.

"This creates a chilling effect," says Ed Bolen,
senior food policy analyst at California Food Policy
Advocates in San Francisco.

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