Mercury News (California), May 19, 2008: This is the time to rewrite rules for food stamps

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Mercury News Editorial

Article Launched: 05/19/2008 01:33:23 AM PDT

Gas at $4 per gallon and the sharpest price rise in 17 years for basic foodstuffs, such as bread and milk, have hit the poor in California with a double whammy. The combination is causing painful choices between rent and medicine and, in some cases for the first time, hunger. Second Harvest Food Bank reports that the number of people seeking help in Santa Clara County has increased 8 percent this year.

State leaders can’t mandate the price of pasta or set federal policy, but they do determine Californians’ access to food stamps – and what a shameful, miserly bunch they’ve been.

Only an estimated one-third of the state’s working poor families get food stamps, compared with nearly three out of five nationwide. That places California 50th in the nation; about two million Californians who are entitled to food stamps don’t receive them.

Punitive rules and paperwork requirements that most other states have abandoned, plus a lack of outreach, are keeping food from the mouths of Californians. Legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should liberalize them. They can do so even in a year with a huge budget deficit, because food stamps are federally funded, except for shared administrative costs. Among the burdens that the state places on recipients:

• California is one of only three states, along with Texas and Arizona, that requires applicants to have their fingerprints electronically scanned.

• California is one


of three states to require food stamp recipients to resubmit paperwork every three months.

• California is one of three dozen states that disqualifies food stamps applicants who have assets worth more than $2,000 – often equal to about one month’s rent.

Despite the urging of food banks and advocates for the poor, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill last year that would have removed the electronic fingerprinting requirement. Although that issue is off the table, for now, current bills would remove the two other impediments.

Under AB 433, sponsored by Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, California would join a dozen states that qualify food stamp applicants solely on the income they make (no more than $1,385 per month in take-home pay for a family of three). That makes sense, for families shouldn’t be disqualified because they are saving for college or putting aside money for emergencies. California Food Policy Advocates estimates that 80,000 Californians would qualify for food stamps if assets more than $2,000 are no longer counted. Their benefit would bring in an average of $369 in food per household each month.

Under AB 2844, sponsored by Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, recipients would re-qualify every six months, instead of every quarter. Reducing paperwork would save families time from work and the state an estimated $50 million in streamlined bureaucracy after an initial conversion cost of $15 million.

In a year when the governor is proposing massive cuts in health and welfare services to the poor, changing food stamp rules would bring in hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars to low-income families. It is foolish and unconscionable not to seize the chance to prevent hunger.

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