The North County Times editorial, June 7, 2006
Let them eat red tape
Our view: Legislature must remove bureaucratic barriers between poor and federally funded food stamps
California prides itself on leading the nation in many things, including the quality of our social safety net. But here’s one area where we should work quickly to relinquish our lead: California wedges more bureaucratic red tape between its poorest residents and federally funded food than any other state.
As a result, only about half of eligible Californians and one-quarter of eligible San Diego County residents are getting food stamps, an increasingly vital and sound investment of federal tax dollars. Two bills making their way through the Legislature would make it easier for our poorest neighbors to get access to subsidized, healthy food. California, long the largest food and agricultural producer in the United States, must not continue to be one of the hardest states for poor Americans to get the food assistance they deserve.
Assembly Bill 3029 would lower the number of reports food-stamp recipients have to fill out each year from four to two. California is the only state still asking food-stamp recipients to fill out quarterly reports of their income and other factors; 45 other states have simplified the process to once every six months.
Assembly Bill 2205 would also streamline the process for recipients, this time by making people who are eligible for the state’s Medi-Cal health insurance automatically eligible for federal food stamps. Again, 39 other states have blazed this trail of common-sense compassion. This bill would also automatically enroll children in these food-stamp-eligible families in the federal school-lunch program —- bringing two boorish barriers down at once.
Neither bill would make more people eligible for food stamps; this top-heavy economy appears to be taking care of that. Rather, the bills would make already eligible people more able to actually get the food that is available to them. And we need the help: Census data suggest more than 311,000 people are living in poverty in San Diego County. The nonprofit California Food Policy Advocates estimates that the number of people living in a household wherein someone is hungry or worried about getting enough food jumped 30 percent between 2003 and 2005.
California is now passing up more than $2 billion in federal food stamp benefits each year, meaning the poorest Californians are going hungry for no good reason at all. What’s more, the state is likely forfeiting twice that amount in essential economic activity, because much of the money now spent on food that could be purchased with food stamps would otherwise be spent where it’s needed most, in low-income communities.
None of the charges usually lobbed at federal benefit programs hold water here. Illegal immigrants aren’t eligible for food stamps now and wouldn’t become eligible with these changes. Fraud levels are at all-time lows, due mostly to a shift away from actual “food stamp” coupons to an Electronic Benefit Transfer card much like ATM cards only redeemable for food.
Rather than building bureaucracy, these bills would streamline the process for recipients and agencies alike by eliminating unnecessary and duplicative paperwork. Requiring fewer reports also reduces the number of times errors can be introduced into government records, another boost to efficiency.
The trek down to the county assistance office is tough enough when you’re poor —- often there are kids to worry about, and bus fares are rising while the numbers of routes and runs shrink. But imagine having to do this four times a year. Now imagine having to return to the same office to provide the same information and documentation that you already provided to the office next door —- in 2001, according to the San Diego Hunger Coalition, getting food stamps took an average of three trips to the office. And, since the 1996 reform pushed most food-stamp recipients from welfare to work, imagine having to take off from work each time to complete this odyssey of bureaucracy.
Both bills passed the Assembly and are circulating in the state Senate. California must do whatever it can to stop unnecessary hunger; lowering its own bureaucratic barriers is a good start.