Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Americans Turn Away from Food Stamps

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Americans Turn Away from Food Stamps

Article excerpt

Poor Americans are leaving food stamps in record numbers.

In part, this is good news: The booming economy is generating jobs that are pulling many families out of poverty. The not-so-good news: Many working families still eligible for the benefit no longer apply for it.

"The decline in food-stamp participation has been unprecedented," says Craig Gundersen, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) economist.

The question is why? Where some economists, including Mr. Gundersen, largely credit a strong economy, poverty experts worry that welfare reform has gone too far.

Sometimes overtly and sometimes inadvertently, state welfare systems are discouraging poor people from signing up for food stamps, advocates charge. And the government safety net, conceived in a different era, may no longer be suited for the needs of poor families in today's welfare-to-work era. .

"Poverty is about working families now," says Stacy Dean, an analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. "I don't think the system has recast itself as an effective system of work supports."

This week, the USDA released a new study showing that food-stamp rolls had fallen to 18.2 million last year, down from 27.5 million people in 1994.

The drop has not increased hunger in America, but it has pushed more of the burden off of government and onto private charities.

The new report found that the economy can explain 35 percent of the drop. Welfare reform - and states' de-emphasis of benefits - only accounted for 12 percent of the drop. But the report could not explain the rest of the decline.

Economists and advocates for the poor offer different explanations. Gundersen says many poor families are doing so much better that they qualify for only minimal food-stamp benefits and don't think they're worth the hassle of signing up. Others, he suggests, may be more in need but expect to land a job soon enough that they don't bother to apply.

Poverty advocates counter that food-stamp benefits for legal immigrants and many able-bodied adults without children were cut in 1996. The broader welfare-reform movement also created a new atmosphere that discouraged poor people from using government help, they argue.

The debate is important. Food stamps represent the largest federal food-assistance program, and one of three main elements of America's safety net for the poor (welfare and Medicaid are the other two). Last year, the US paid out nearly $16 billion in food- stamp benefits - an average $72 per recipient per month.

If the booming economy has caused most of the drop in participation, then when the economy sours, food-stamp rolls will swell again and the program will play its part as a safety net.

But if the program no longer serves poor families adequately, then it will prove especially deficient during the next downturn. …

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