After writing the first piece on food stamps, a number of questions have come up regarding San Diego’s place in the food stamps controversy. How are the income guidelines that determine eligibility set? Why does San Diego county have such low enrollment in the program? And most of all, what can we do about it?
The income guidelines that the USDA utilizes are based on the “Orshansky Poverty Thresholds”, developed for the Social Security Administration by a woman named Mollie Orshansky in the late 50’s and adopted by all Executive Administrations in 1965. Her guidelines took into account family size, farm or non-farm family, income, and other relative numbers. The core of this was based on the USDA’s assumption that families larger than three spent approximately 1/3 of their after-tax income on food. Therefore, by multiplying the Economy Food Plan (the cheapest, somewhat healthy food plan designed by the USDA) by three, a family could legitimately survive on that income without assistance. That assumption has remained pretty much unchanged through the present time.
Lets be honest here for a second. If I spent 1/3 of my disposable income on food, I would be spending foolishly. In today’s world everything costs money, and it all comes out of pocket. Most people probably spend something more like 10% of their income on food. What this shows is how poverty thresholds in this country are outrageous; they do not take into account local cost of living, inflated costs for basic services (water, electric, etc.) and other expenses, such as health insurance or auto insurance. The guidelines imply that someone with a gross income of more than $1,800 a month should be able to support three kids! Imagine trying to do that without ANY help whatsoever. Single parents beware!
The debate should not be on whether or not the income guidelines should be adjusted, but rather how to revamp the calculations altogether in order to accurately reflect poverty. This question has to do more with the American definition of poverty versus how most other industrialized nations define it. Our definition is referred to as “Absolute Poverty” (as in, if you are below this line, you are poor; if you are above this line, you are not) while the EU utilizes “Relative Poverty” (as in, if most people are at a certain income, and you are making a certain percentage less than that, you are poor). This is a great website discussing the differences between the two from the perspective of a British advocacy group.
What makes San Diego unique is that the general attitude towards those applying for public assistance is that they are sponging off hard working people. We live in an area that has long represented one of the biggest gaps in distribution of wealth in the country. The Median Household Income in 2006 was somewhere around $59,000 dollars, making San Diego one of the 100 most wealthy counties in the country (impressive for such a large metro area). Unfortunately, when adjusted to reflect cost of living, this is not so – and the people who suffer the most are those who are at or near the income limits to receive public assistance.
San Diego also measures up pretty poorly to the rest of the country in terms of ADJUSTED cost of living. The Council for Community and Economic Research uses a calculation called the ACCRA Cost of Living Index to determine “Real” Median Income. As you can see, San Diego ranks 162nd out of 170 , right below areas with notably high cost of living such as San Francisco, New York, Honolulu, and Philadelphia. What this means is that our incomes do not reflect the cost of living. In effect, those with incomes at the “Median” line actually lose about $20,000 dollars in disposable income when adjusted to reflect the high cost of living here in San Diego.
Additionally, there is a stigma that those applying for food stamps carry due to the treatment they receive during the application process that is in part to blame for the low enrollment numbers. I spent a few minutes on the phone with Jennifer Tracy of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, which advocates for changes in the food stamps application process and an increase in the enrollment of food stamp participants. The conversation had a familiar subject: lack of adequate administration of food stamps distribution by the County of San Diego.
According to Ms. Tracy, the County Board of Supervisors has spent so much “in the administration of fraud prevention that the application process is inhumane and not cost effective.” The number of hoops someone has to jump through in order to get food stamps is only effective in filtering out eligible participants , particularly those who are elderly or homeless. Again, we come to an issue where the County Board of Supes has done more to villify their most vulnerable constituents than to help them.
As I stated in the first post , there are a number of advocacy groups working to change poverty definitions and guidelines to more accurately reflect who is, in fact, poor, hungry, or both. But, according to Ms. Tracy, there are things that we can do as well. “Contacting the County Board of Supervisors to let them know that overly protective fraud prevention is stopping eligible people from appying for food stamps is a start.” Apparently, the State and Federal government only reimburses the County for a specific amount towards fraud prevention, and thusly more of the Health and Human Services budget could be spent on hiring more case workers to keep up with the increase in applicants. Look at that: a budget cutting measure that would actually streamline the process, make the customer service more humane, AND create jobs!
We can also push elected officials on the state level to eliminate finger imaging as part of the application process. Not only does this waste significant amounts of money, but it also criminalizes applicants. “California is one of only four states in the country that does this,” says Ms. Tracy. “The other 46 states have figured out ways to limit applicants from jumping from one office to another without fingerprinting.” If the state were to waive this, which the legislature does have the power to do, it would again save money that could be spent to make the process more efficient.
On a more general note, take a look at the guidelines. If you or anyone you know is eligible, urge them to apply. The more participants, the more likely it is that the process will be made easier in order to accomodate the influx of applicants. I know that during food distributions, Jewish Family Service Hand-Up Food Pantry Coordinator Shelly Hahne (who also happens to be an OBecian) has been signing up recipients for food stamps at a pretty fast clip. Irregardless of organizational affiliation, anyone can help others access food. Here is a link to a website that lists your local Family Resource Center determined by zip code. For example, if you live in OB or the surrounding areas, the office is in Kearny Mesa on Ruffin Road.
It is obvious that even as more people are struggling than any other time since the Great Depression, we are lagging behind in making sure people don’t fall through the cracks. As stated before, there is a stigma that attaches itself to those applying for food stamps. Here in San Diego, the most ignorant voices tend to attach things like criminals and illegal immigrants to this debate. But the truth lies in the facts. According to his new book, “All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America”, author Joel Berg states that of Americans receiving food stamps, 30% are working, 50% are children, and 82% are elderly, disabled, or minors. If 82% of Americans on food stamps represent our most vulnerable population, and 30% are working, I don’t see much room for illegal immigrants or drug dealers to “defraud” or “sponge” off the system.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Dianne Jacob.