Originally posted on Feb.14, 2009.
At a time when jobless rates are hovering around 8%, one in ten homeowners can’t afford their mortgage payments, and the average cost of staple foods have risen astronomically, we should all be proud to know that those of us living in San Diego County reside in a region with the lowest accessibility to food stamps in the ENTIRE COUNTRY.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, only 29% of eligible recipients receive Food Stamp benefits, good for last among the 24 largest metropolitan areas in the country. As a case manager working with this population directly, I have found that this number is indicative of the many hoops one has to jump through in order to enroll in the program in the first place.
The first challenge that any potential recipient must overcome is the all important income limit. These guidelines are almost impossible to fall between if there are one or two adults working and bringing income into a household.
A family of four, with a gross monthly income of about $2,400 dollars would be automatically disqualified from receiving food stamps. Expenses not including food eliminate all possibility of disposable income – starting with rent for a two bedroom apartment at approximately $1,200 dollars. This does not include transportation to and from work with gas at $2.30 a gallon (or public transportation), car payments or other monthly bills, insurance, and other miscellaneous expenses such as new clothing for growing children. This begs the question: is there any way to create a spending budget when your entire paycheck is spent before you even receive it?
With all that aside, assume you are “lucky” enough to fall within the guidelines. You then submit an application to a local Family Resource Center office, where families go to apply for Medi-Cal and CalWorks benefits. The discrepancy here is that Food Stamps are fully funded by the USDA, whereas Cal-Works and Medi-Cal are supported by both State and Federal taxes. (In other words, when food stamps go unused the money is distributed to other places instead of San Diego – which makes a good case for having a separate office or at least separate case workers for Food Stamps applicants.)
After submitting an application, you are assigned a case worker, who then scrutinizes your entire life in what is called the “assets test”. Applicant households, regardless of size, can only have up to $2,000 dollars in “resources”. These resources include: Cash, Savings, Stocks/Bonds, Lump-Sum Payments, Building, Land, or Property, and even burial plots if you happen to own more than one. Luckily owning a home or a car does not count towards a family’s resources, but that leaves room for interpretation: imagine owning a $25,000 dollar car, a $500,000 dollar house, and still qualifying for food stamps? Technically it is possible as long as you have no money in the bank and you fit within the income guidelines, although it would be unlikely that an investigator would approve such an individual.
In contrast, a family of eight that falls within the income limits, rents their home, and happens to have $2,500 dollars in the bank is not eligible for food stamp benefits. Imagine you have six kids to feed; how long is that $2,500 dollars going to last? The expenses that come with having a large family like that are astronomical. In that situation, a case worker would tell the applicant to come back when the money is gone, further delaying the application process. This is another way in which people are dissuaded from applying for food stamps.
Additional scrutiny includes applicants being asked to provide birth certificates and social security cards for all claimed children (and even divorce decrees to prove someone is no longer cohabitating), a scheduled home visit by an investigator to determine if there are discrepancies in the applicant’s description of the home, a required two-hour orientation for all adult recipients, and a general delay of approximately 30 days (if you believe the case worker) which is more likely to stretch out to two months. Also, if you receive SSI you cannot receive food stamps, as the monthly payment includes food expenses.
Fortunately, advocacy organizations such as the Hunger Action Network, Food Research Action Center , California Food Policy Advocates, and the San Diego Food Bank are working doubly hard during this time to educate potential recipients, lobby for policies that streamline access to food stamps, and demand that the federal stimulus package includes further access to food for those affected by the economic crisis. More recently , California (and 20 other states) can no longer use the “assets test” in determining eligibility as of July 1, 2009. The effort to implement this procedure will take time, but at least there will be less scrutiny for eligible participants in San Diego.
Anyone who has ever applied for San Diego County services (such as CMS) knows how the personal attacks and continuous scrutiny of the process can deter applicants, and food stamps are no different. What is unfortunate is that during one of the worst economic climates in recent history (here is a report by the San Diego Food Bank showing a dramatic rise in food pantry demand – check the statistics for Council District 2!) the neediest individuals are being denied access to food – a basic human right. We can be critical of the income guidelines, the application process, the case workers and supervisors at the Family Resource Centers, and other facets of this disturbing trend. But above all, there are thousands of families struggling to put food on the table every week who are missing out on affordable, healthy food. Nothing will change until the system is challenged.
In the meantime, try to volunteer services, take part in progressive foods movements (Food Not Bombs is a great one) or donate non-perishable goods to any legitimate food distribution program. It is surely going to take community efforts to get through these tough times, and the last thing our communities need is families going hungry when there is plenty of food to go around.