Bush Administration proposals to change the government’s food stamp program would cut back on benefits and limit accessibility just as the number of participants is hitting a record high, critics of the proposed new regulations said Friday.
“These regulations just don’t reflect the reality poor people are facing in America today, said Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio), chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger. “The effect of these regulations will be to take people down on their luck and turn them into paupers.”
But officials at the Department of Agriculture say the rule changes would in fact strengthen the food stamp program, which was created in 1964 to subsidize the food purchases of needy Americans.
The proposed new regulations “will improve program accessibility and benefits for people eligible for food stamps and needing food assistance,” Catherine Bertini, assistant secretary for food and consumer services, said in a statement.
In 1990 farm legislation, Congress mandated changes to simplify the food stamp application process and to ease the program’s paperwork burden for both applicants and administrators, according to Hunger Committee staff members. The proposed new rules, drafted in response to that mandate, will be issued in final form as soon as the Agriculture Department finishes reviewing public comments.
“Our concern is that, in actually implementing those changes, they (Agriculture Department officials) have gone in the opposite direction of congressional intent,” said Neal Flieger, the Hunger Committee’s communications director. “The changes have the effect of restricting food stamp eligibility, not increasing” it, he said.
The criticism comes just two days after Agriculture Department officials reported that food stamp use reached a record high of 23.6 million people in August, 3 million more than at the same time last year. That means roughly one in 10 Americans is using food stamps, and experts say the number will increase if current trends continue.
To qualify for food stamps, a recipient’s net family income may not exceed the federal poverty line--$1,117 a month for a family of four. In addition, applicants are rejected if they own substantial salable assets other than a personal residence, furniture and cars worth up to $4,500.
For those who qualify, the monthly benefits currently average about $64 per family.
One of the proposed changes questioned by Hall involves the calculation used by the Agriculture Department to determine the value of an applicant’s assets. The department’s proposed rule would allow recipients to keep any asset with a potential sale price of less than $2,000. Recipients would have to sell more costly items, even if they owed significant amounts of debt on the items and their equity was less than $2,000.
Hall is also taking issue with a proposal that could provide fewer benefits for homeless Americans who pay for shelter some of the time.
Some shelter costs are deductible in determining food stamp eligibility. The Agriculture Department’s proposal would set the value of a month’s shelter at $93. Homeless people who pay more would not receive credit for their additional shelter costs unless they produced documentation of the greater costs.
The legislation had intended for states to set their own shelter standards to best reflect costs in their area, the Hunger Committee staff said.