Food aid eludes half of poor

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Half of all low-income people did not collect food-stamp benefits in 2004, says a report released today that examines poverty on state and county levels.

This is lower than the U.S. Department of Agriculture”s (USDA) estimate that 60 percent of those eligible participated in the Food Stamp Program in 2004, said the National Priorities Project (NPP), a Massachusetts research organization that studies the impact of federal spending policies.

Federal eligibility criteria “cuts off many low-income people from receiving benefits, so the USDA figure does not address what proportion of low-income people are actually being reached,” said the NPP report.

If food-stamp eligibility criteria were relaxed and more effort was spent on outreach, more families — especially children — would come into the program, said Anita Dancs, research director of the NPP, noting that, despite the nation”s wealth, 11.9 percent or 13 million households were food insecure in 2004.

The $33 billion Food Stamp Program, the largest federal food-assistance program, is up for renewal. Last month, the House passed a farm bill that adds $4 billion in new food-stamp funds over five years and makes modest changes in eligibility rules so more poor people — especially working families — can qualify for the benefits.

In a recent story, The Washington Times reported that some anti-poverty advocates would like to see fundamental changes in the 1960s-era Food Stamp Program, such as returning the program to states or allowing purchases of nonfood necessities, such as laundry soap or diapers.

Anti-hunger groups would prefer to open food stamps to more people. One suggestion is to allow immigrants to apply for food stamps regardless of how long they have lived here. Current rules require a five-year residency for immigrants.

The NPP report said there are many reasons why poor families don”t use food stamps: Families who don”t expect to need food long term may balk at the application or renewal process, while others may just find it easier to visit charities and food pantries to meet their food needs.

But eligibility rules are a big reason why only 50 percent of low-income people — defined as those with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty level — receive food stamps, said the NPP report. It used state and county data from the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department”s Bureau of Economic Analysis to measure food-stamp use.

The NPP said that the District had the nation”s highest food-stamp participation rate, with 72 percent of its low-income population on food stamps. West Virginia had a higher-than-average 65 percent food-stamp participation rate, while Virginia and Maryland were lower than average, with 48 percent and 40 percent of their low-income populations on food stamps, respectively.

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