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State’s food stamp cash-out policy no longer the best option for many aid recipients

Leaning on a cane, Donjean Gardner eases open her fridge and surveys the contents: half a Subway sandwich, several boxes of tangerine juice, a jar of pickles and half a jar of salsa.

Her one good meal a day comes from Meals on Wheels.

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her 30s, Gardner traveled the world for 20 more years working in television production. But the disease caught up with her eventually.

Now 70, she is mostly confined to the metal bed that dominates her cramped apartment in Echo Park. Her only income is $845 a month in cash assistance for impoverished elderly or disabled people, most of which is spent on rent. She thought she might qualify for food stamps. To her dismay, the answer was no.

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California is the only state that does not allow its 1.2 million recipients of federal Supplemental Security Income to apply for the benefit. The state decided in 1974 to increase its matching grant — known as the State Supplementary Payment — by $10 a month in place of administering food stamps for them. This additional amount has not changed in more than three decades.

“It’s not fair,” Gardner said, slumped on the edge of her bed as a Carole King album played in the background. "$10 is not worth what it was back then.... I sold my car so I could live.”

When the state created the rule, many Supplemental Security Income recipients qualified only for the minimum food stamp allotment, which was then $10. Augmenting cash payments by that amount helped the state reduce its administration costs and relieved elderly and disabled people of the regular paperwork and other steps required to receive food stamps.

However, a recent increase in food stamp benefits and cuts to the cash assistance program have raised concern that some of the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents are now being shortchanged by the policy.

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“How can you say there is an extra $10 when benefits are cut year after year?” asked Dan Brzovic of Disability Rights California. “That’s an accounting gimmick.”

To help close a massive deficit, the state Legislature approved cuts that have shaved $25 off the maximum monthly grant for individuals like Gardner and $117 off the maximum grant for couples since last summer. Additional cuts are being discussed. Meanwhile, food stamp recipients saw their benefits increase almost 14% last year.

According to an analysis by the California Department of Social Services, about 307,000 households that rely solely on Supplemental Security Income would become eligible for $16 to $69 a month in food stamps, if allowed to apply. But John Wagner, director of the California Department of Social Services, cautioned there would be “winners and losers” if the state reverses its decision to cash out food stamps.

Currently, households that include members who are not receiving Supplemental Security Income may apply for food stamps without the aid recipient’s income counting against the rest of the family’s eligibility or benefit levels. This would change if California allows Supplemental Security Income recipients to apply for food stamps.

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About 495,000 households would see no change in benefits, according to the analysis. About 55,000 would see their food stamp allotment increase by an average of $15 a month. But about 64,000 would face a reduction in benefits. And an additional 35,000 would no longer qualify for food stamps — a loss amounting to an average $209 a month.

Maria Arroyo, a single mother of two from San Diego, is among those whose benefits could be affected.

Arroyo, 47, struggles to make ends meet on $345 a month in cash aid for needy families and $734 a month of Supplemental Security Income for her disabled son. She doesn’t know how she would manage if she lost the $190 a month in food stamps for which they now qualify. She said it’s been hard to hold down a full-time job while caring for a 9-year-old with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Before, I had three houses to clean,” she said. “But people start to tell me they can’t pay me anymore.”

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Even though some households would become ineligible for food stamps, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has recommended that state legislators consider reversing the cash-out, noting that such households already are better off financially than the ones that stand to gain.

Reversing the policy would increase participation in the food stamp program, which is among the nation’s lowest. In 2007, the most recent year for which federal estimates are available, just 48% of eligible Californians were enrolled in the program.

The federal government pays for the food stamp benefit and for half the cost of administering the program; the rest is covered by the state and counties.

According to a recent Legislative Analyst’s Office report, allowing Supplemental Security Income recipients to apply for food stamps would yield about $125 million in additional nutrition benefits for the state — a boost for the economy. The increase in the food stamp caseload would cost the state an additional $17.4 million to administer in the first year and $6.8 million a year thereafter, the report said.

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To help elderly and disabled people access food stamps, the report recommends simplifying the qualification process for Supplementary Security Income recipients, including considering making them automatically eligible.

Wagner wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April to ask whether the federal government would allow California to open the food stamp program only to those Supplemental Security Income recipients who would benefit. State legislators want to know the answer before reconsidering the policy.

Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, told Wagner in May that his office needs to consult with the Social Security Administration. When asked in the past, federal officials have said that states must apply the same rules to all Supplemental Security Income recipients.

Gardner is hoping that this administration will take a different position. She knows exactly what she would do with food stamps.

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“I would just go to Trader Joe’s,” she said, her face brightening. “I would buy fruit, vegetables, yogurt.”

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com


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