October 17, 2003
FOOD STAMP PROGRAM: FEDERAL DEVELOPMENTS AND STATE EFFORTS
By: Helga Niesz, Principal Analyst
You asked what changes are being proposed at the federal level for the Food Stamp Program and what other states are doing to enroll more people in the program.
The Food Stamp Program provides supplemental food to people on welfare and low-income working families. It is federally funded, but administered by the states, which share some of the administrative costs. The federal government sets the rules for the program but allows states some flexibility to choose among several options or ask for a waiver of specific rules. In 2002, federal legislation reauthorized the program for another five years, broadened states' options, lengthened the time that families moving from welfare to work can continue to receive food stamps without additional paperwork, made it easier for larger families to qualify, and allowed more legal immigrants back into the program in several stages.
A recent federal legislative proposal (H.R. 4) would allow a demonstration program in five states that would turn the current entitlement program (where anyone who meets the qualifications is entitled to the benefits) into a block grant (where the number of beneficiaries is limited by the amount of funding available) and give the chosen states more flexibility in how to use the money. The House passed this bill in February 2003, but the Senate has not done so.
Connecticut and other states are already making use of a number of federal options and implementing the provisions of the 2002 reauthorization. Below we describe some proposals and best practices from other states for outreach to increase food stamp participation.
DESCRIPTION OF FOOD STAMP PROGRAM
The Food Stamp Program is federally funded, but administered by the states, which share some of the administrative costs. The program provides supplemental food to people on welfare and low-income working families. Historically, food stamps were coupons that people could take to their supermarket and exchange for food, but now many states, like Connecticut, give people access to their food stamp benefits through an electronic card, which they use like a debit card at the supermarket.
To be eligible for food stamps, people have to document their income, assets, expenses, and family situation. The amount of food stamp help they receive depends on their situation, determined by a complex formula that looks at their income, makes certain deductions, and determines their needs. The minimum monthly food stamp benefit is $10, but the average recipient receives about $150 to $200. The federally set maximum benefits are $371 for a family of three and $471 for a family of four. Some people are “categorically eligible” for food stamps because they also receive temporary welfare benefits for families with children or are elderly or disabled people receiving federal Supplemental Security Income benefits, or fit into other categories states have determined to be eligible. Non-disabled, non-elderly adults who are not caring for children under age six are expected to engage in work, job search, or training activities. Federal rules generally allow able-bodied single people to receive food stamps for only up to three months, unless they are working, searching or training for work, or living in certain high labor surplus areas. People have to reverify their situation periodically to continue to be eligible and generally report certain income changes.
2002 FEDERAL LEGISLATION
In May 2002, Congress passed the “Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.” Title IV of the act reauthorized the Food Stamp Program for another five years, made various other changes in the program, and has become known as the Food Stamp Reauthorization Act (P.L. 107-171 Title IV). The act:
1. broadened states' options;
2. lengthened the time that families moving from welfare to work can continue to receive food stamps without additional paperwork from three months to five if a state chooses that option;
3. made it easier for larger families to qualify for food stamps by replacing the fixed $134 standard deduction from income with one that varies according to household size and is adjusted annually; and
4. allowed more legal immigrants whom federal law had previously excluded from the federal Food Stamp Program back into the program in several stages:
a. October 1, 2002 for disabled “qualified” legal immigrants who meet the definition of disability in the Food Stamp law regardless of when they entered the U.S.,
b. April 1, 2003 for “qualified” immigrants age 18-64 who have been in the U.S. for five years (this provision ends the seven year limit on food stamp benefits for refugees and people who have been granted asylum), and
c. October 1, 2003 for qualified immigrant children without the five-year residency requirement (Subtitle D § 4401).
A January 2003 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report “Implementing New Changes in the Food Stamp Program: A Provision by Provision Analysis of the Farm Bill” discusses these and other changes at http://www.cbpp.org/8-27-02fa.htm. A National Conference of State Legislatures analysis of the changes is also available at: http://www.ncsl.org/statefed/humserv/fsguidenew.htm
2003 FEDERAL FOOD STAMP PROPOSALS
Recent proposals in Congress center around turning the program into a block grant to states. In fact, the House approved legislation (H.R. 4, Title VI Sec. 602) on February 13, 2003 as part of broader Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) reauthorization legislation it sent to the Senate. The Senate has not approved any TANF reauthorization bill
yet, but the Senate Finance Committee recently considerably amended and approved its version of H.R. 4 without the Food Stamp block grant demonstration program in early September. The bill is currently on the Floor of the Senate.
H.R. 4 as approved by the House would turn the Food Stamp Program into block grants in up to five demonstration states. The states would (1) receive a fixed amount of federal money based on the amounts they received either in the prior fiscal year or average over three fiscal years, whichever is higher; (2) have more flexibility in what proportions of the funds they spend on food assistance, employment and training, or administrative costs and (3) have more power to change eligibility requirements and benefits, except that they could not expand eligibility to legal immigrants not now eligible for the program. The relevant text of H.R. 4 Title VI § 602 is available at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c108:2:./temp/~c108jOP4HI:e144484:
Connecticut, where the Department of Social Services (DSS) administers the Food Stamp Program, has already implemented a number of the options allowed by the federal law. Family asset limits are $2,000 and $3,000 for families that have elderly or disabled members. The state has categorical eligibility for Temporary Family Assistance (TFA) and SSI recipients. Participants must now provide reverification of their income and financial situation only every six months and when changes above a certain level occur, instead of every month, with longer periods for people on fixed incomes. Those who have moved from welfare to work can remain on the program for five months without additional paperwork and may be eligible after that depending on their situation. In 2002, the legislature increased the vehicle equity exemption from $4,500 to $9,500, the same as for the TFA welfare program. In 2003, the legislature required use of a standard utility allowance instead of actual utility expenditures and authorized DSS to undertake other program simplification measures.
Until recently, single adults without children who are able-bodied could only get food stamps for three months out of a 26-month period unless they lived in Hartford, Waterbury, or Bridgeport. But the state has received approval from the federal government for a waiver for all of Connecticut as of October 1, 2003, because of the current surplus labor situation.
Connecticut also has a purely state-funded food stamp program for legal immigrants who would otherwise have been eligible for the federal program but were excluded by federal welfare reform legislation in 1996 (P. L. 104-193). However, acceptance of new applications to this program ended June 30, 2003.
After years of caseload reductions, Connecticut's food stamp caseload increased nearly 13% – from 155,890 to 175,737 – between December 2000 and December 2002.
OTHER STATES' APPROACHES
Nationwide food stamp caseloads have recently risen after years of a decline that began in 1994, according to a March 2003 article by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a private nonprofit research organization. In December 2002, there were 20.5 million people in the program compared to 17.1 million in December 2000, an increase of 19.5%. As noted above, Connecticut's caseload increased nearly 13% during that time period. The article attributes the increases to the downturn in the economy, increased unemployment, and to a lesser extent increased outreach efforts and recent program changes. The article and a state-by-state chart of changes can be found at: http://www.cbpp.org/1-15-02fa.htm.
At least 60% of the Food Stamp program participation decline since 1994 resulted from people leaving the welfare program, according to a 2002 federal General Accounting Office (GAO) report. This group left the food stamp program at a higher rate than food stamp recipients who were never on the welfare program. The finding raised concerns that the federal program rules do not facilitate participation by low-income working families affected by welfare reform. The GAO study also (1) examined how states have used the existing options and waivers and (2) found that almost all states used one or more of them to change their process for determining eligibility (“Food Stamp Program: States' Use of Options and Waivers to Improve Program Administration and Promote Access” GAO 02-409, February 2002).
States' Program Variations
State programs vary somewhat in their structure because different states have chosen to use the federal options and waivers differently.
Vehicle Exemptions. For instance, while Connecticut exempts $9,500 of vehicle equity when determining food stamp eligibility, some states have higher limits and 21 states exclude the value of all vehicles or all vehicles used for transportation. These 21 states include Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine (for households with children), Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. Some states exempt the value of one vehicle per household or one per each adult in the household. For more details and a 50-state chart on vehicle asset exemptions, see “State Vehicle Asset Policies in the Food Stamp Program” at the CBPP website: http://www.cbpp.org/7-30-01fa.htm.
Waiver and Exemptions on Three-Month Able-Bodied Adult Limit. Forty-one states, including Connecticut, have waived the three-month limit on able-bodied childless adults in areas of high unemployment. States can also use exemptions to increase the three-month time limit for able-bodied childless adults who are not working to six months or nine months. Missouri and Pennsylvania do this to raise the time limit to six months in non-waived areas. More details on this subject are available at: http://www.cbpp.org/12-7-00fa.htm and http://www.cbpp.org/6-17-02fs.htm
State Immigrant Programs. Seventeen states, including Connecticut, have some type of program to replace the federal food stamp benefits that legal immigrants lost in 1996. OLR Report 2003-R-0329 “States' Public Assistance Programs for Legal Immigrants” provides more details. Other general information is available at http://www.cbpp.org/1-22-02tanf4.htm.
Outreach Efforts. Over the years, organizations involved in anti-hunger or food security efforts have suggested that states need more active food stamp outreach programs. A study from California by food policy advocates catalogs what they consider best practices in California counties, which help administer the Food Stamp program in that state, and in other states to improve access and outreach. The report suggests numerous possibilities, such as expansion of categorical eligibility and exemptions for able-bodied adults without dependents; nontraditional office hours (Massachusetts, for instance has offices open on Saturday mornings); alternative application sites and methods such as mail-in applications; simplification of the application; using clerical staff to assist clients in filling out applications; using food banks to initiate applications; improving customer service standards; making appointments to help clients avoid long waits; establishing hotline numbers for food stamp information; developing a comprehensive food resource brochure and providing food stamp information through food banks and food pantries; sending outreach workers to schools, health centers, and community centers; linking food stamp outreach to other existing outreach programs; and creating partnerships between community-based anti-hunger advocates and county social service agencies. The report is available at: http://www.cfpa.net/foodstamps/BestPractices.pdf.
In some states, people who apply for supplemental security Income at the local Social Security office can at the same time fill out a combined application for the Food Stamp Program. Some of the states that allow this are South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Details are available at http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/2003/06/0222.htm
Other Food Stamp Resources
DSS's A Guide to the Food Stamp program can be found at:
State by state food stamp website information is available at:
Other CBPP food stamp publications and Food Stamp Program information from a variety of sources can be found at: http://www.cbpp.org/pubs/fa.htm and http://www.cbpp.org/12-19-01fa.htm.