New York Times, July 2, 2008: State Aims to Help Families Struggling to Buy Food

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As New York۪s poorest residents struggle to make ends meet amid sharply rising food prices, the administration of Gov. David A. Paterson has found a way to significantly increase federal food assistance by more than 50 percent in some cases for about 114,000 impoverished households around the state, officials said Tuesday.

In a plan the governor was expected to formally announce on Wednesday, about 90,000 households in New York City will be eligible to receive, on average, $131 more per month in food stamps, the federal food assistance program, state officials said. About 24,000 households elsewhere in the state will be eligible to receive, on average, $72 more per month in food stamps.

The increases will be a windfall for many poor families. The average household food stamp allocation in New York is $214 per month, according to the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the agency charged with oversight of support programs and economic assistance for low-income New Yorkers.

“Rising food and commodities prices are affecting all New Yorkers,” Governor Paterson said in a written statement on Tuesday. “Increasing food stamp benefits for some of our state۪s most vulnerable residents will truly make a difference in their lives and help them to better meet their families۪ nutritional needs.”

The increases are allowable under provisions in federal law that enable residents enrolled in the federal home-energy subsidy program to receive higher food stamp allocations. To benefit from the increases, 114,000 households, most of whom are in New York City public and Section 8 subsidized housing, will be enrolled in the energy subsidy program.

The strategy is part of the state۪s energy assistance plan, which is currently undergoing public comment and must be submitted to the federal Department of Health and Human Services by Sept. 1. State officials said they planned to begin the increase in food stamps on Oct. 1.

While participation in the energy subsidy program will be nominal each household will receive an annual subsidy of only $1 the effect of the enrollment will be to make the households eligible for the food stamp increases, state officials said.

The provisions have existed for years, but this apparently will be the first time that the state has taken advantage of them to help residents in public and Section 8 housing, who have historically been deemed ineligible because most do not pay for energy costs for their homes.

David A. Hansell, commissioner of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said in an interview on Tuesday that he did not know why earlier administrations had not taken advantage of the provisions.

But he said that a recent change in state law that increased public housing subsidies for about 40,000 households while decreasing food stamp benefits had spurred the Paterson administration to look for creative ways to increase food stamp allocations.

Phyllis Morris, director of the state۪s energy assistance program for low-income households, said officials in the Paterson administration “just recently learned” that several other states, including Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine and Washington, had made similar changes that increased food stamp allocations for poor residents.

“It was really kind of a learning process,” she said. “We discovered that it was happening and was being implemented successfully.”

Of the 114,000 new households to be enrolled in the energy assistance program, about 102,000 are in public and Section 8 subsidized housing, and the rest are in group homes and congregate living residences, said Michael Hayes, spokesman for the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

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