Aluveller Perkins, a single mother of four boys with an income barely above the poverty level, sought help in 2008 by applying for federal food stamps in Washington, D.C. But when social service workers reviewed her application, they found that her combined income and personal assets exceeded the limit by $50 – and she was turned down.
The city’s rules denied food stamps to applicants with monthly incomes in excess of $2,389 for a family of four with personal assets such as a car or furnishings worth more than $2,000. “It was disappointing,” recalled Perkins, 36. “I toughed it out anyway,” by keeping to a strict household budget and mastering the art of collecting coupons and buying food on sale.
But now, Perkins’s family and hundreds of other households in Washington with similar incomes and holdings could qualify for food stamp benefits averaging $234 a month. Last week, D.C. officials announced a major change in the income and assets limitations that will greatly expand the number of families that qualify for food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These new standards are part of a nationwide effort promoted by the Obama administration to broaden the availability of food stamps amid one of the worst recessions in modern times.
The combination of 9.7 percent unemployment and high housing and food costs have forced many low-income families throughout the country to cut corners on food and forego nutritious meals. The lowest monthly cost of nutritious food for a family of four is $508, according to USDA figures, or about a fourth of the monthly income of a family of four living a little above the poverty level. The national average value of food stamp benefits per household is $275 per month, although it varies from state to state. Oregon offers one of the lowest average monthly checks per household at $229 while Alaska provides $430 per month.
The Obama initiative to expand the availability of food stamps has come with a substantial price tag. The federal government will spend an estimated $63.6 billion this year alone on the food stamp program – up from $34.6 billion in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration. The USDA funds 100 percent of the cost of food stamps and half of all state administrative costs .
More than 39 million Americans --or one in eight -- receive food stamps, a historic high, according to Jean Daniel, a USDA spokesperson. Nearly a third of that total enrolled in the program during the past two years, since Obama took office. “This is a significant increase and is reflective of changes we’ve seen in economy,” Daniel said. “The beauty of this program is that it was designed to expand or contract based on need.”
The move to open the doors to more individuals, known as broad-based categorical eligibility, eliminates an asset test and allows D.C. residents to earn up to 200 percent of the poverty level, or $3,675 per month for a family of four. The new rules also automatically accept families who may be on other forms of low-income assistance programs. These options aim to specifically help working families with children.
The District of Columbia, New Mexico and Alabama are the latest states and jurisdictions to implement the broader eligibility. Beginning with passage of the Welfare Reform Act in 1996, states were given the option to adopt broad-based categorical eligibility, but few did initially. Approximately 14 states signed on after the legislation passed. Since Obama took office, that number has doubled. According to the latest USDA statistics, 31 states are utilizing this tool to help people put food on the table .
“These expansion options have been growing in popularity and importance certainly as the recession has deepened and continued a way to get more SNAP benefits to more people,” said Sheila Zedlewski, director of the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank.
With many states facing budget crises and increased food stamp case loads, there is great appeal to adopt broad-based categorical eligibility. “Implementing the broad-based categorical eligibility helps states streamline the application process,” said Dorothy Rosenbaum, hunger expert with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. States are cutting back staff while still trying to help people who are struggling during a recession, she said.
Some states have experienced marked surges in applications. Nevada has seen an 89 percent increase in household case loads from December 2007 to December 2009, the highest in the United States.
More states are conducting outreach, improving access to the programs, reducing the amounts of requirements for participants and adopting simplified policy options to reduce the administrative burden, according to USDA officials.
Some experts argue expanding the food stamp program is beneficial for local economy. For every dollar invested in SNAP over $1.84 goes back into the economy, said Melissa Boteach, manager of the Half in Ten Campaign at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Food stamps are one of the most effective stimulus programs out there, she said. “It’s been one of the strongest elements of the social safety net,” Boteach said. “It’s worked. It’s the right thing to do for struggling families and help economic stimulus.”
Food stamps come in the form of an electronic debit card similar to an ATM card. Last week, Perkins paid a visit to the D.C. Department of Human Services and applied for a benefit check. “I hope it works out,” Perkins said, who hopes to qualify for at least $200 per month. “That will take a great burden off of me financially. If it still doesn’t work out for me I hope it works for other families behind me.”