I want to back up a little bit.
From the beginning of this Blog, I have been living on a food budget that is a little lower than the maximum SNAP benefits allowed for an individual in Los Angeles County. I have titled my Blog On Food Stamps, because it explores the challenges one faces in the pursuit of a healthful diet within strict budget limits like those food stamp recipients would likely contend with.
As far as food is concerned, I'm hypothetically "living on food stamps". But, what would it actually take for me to get food stamps if I met the eligibility requirements (which I don't)?
I realize that many people reading this Blog might not be aware of just how difficult it is to actually access food stamp benefits, so I want to explore this topic a little bit.
I will start by asking you to try something. Figure out how to get food stamps in your city or county. Start with Google (lucky you, you probably have a personal computer). I'm not giving you any clues. Find the number, and call the office. Tell them you want to see if you can get food stamps and see what they say. Report back to me in the comments section, I'd love to hear your findings.
Back in February I did the same experiment. This is how it went:
- I called the number I found online while at work, and I was on hold for 15 minutes. That next-agent-will-be-with-you-shortly music is maddening.
- When someone finally picked up, I told them I wanted to get information about accessing food stamp benefits. They tried to get me to do the eligibility quiz online, but I said that I had no access to the Internet. (Sort of true. It wasn't set up in my apartment yet.)
- The agent said "Ok, well then you can come in in person to fill out the paperwork."
- I asked, "When can I come?"
- He said, "Monday through Friday 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM."
- "But that is when I have to be at work," I said, "Is there any other time I can come in to the office?"
- No, there wasn't.
- "Ok," I said, "When can I make an appointment?"
- "There are no appointments," he told me, "you just have to come in."
- "Hm. I'm taking off of work to come in for this appointment, so can you at least give me an idea of how long it will take?"
- He said he couldn't guarantee anything or quote me any type of time frame. I would just have to come and get in line with everyone else. Sounds a lot like a visit to the DMV... not so great.
I think you will agree with me that this process is incredibly intimidating and a quite a pain in the ass. What if English is your second language? What if you cannot read very well? What if your children are citizens, but your own immigration status is questionable? How would you feel about that whole "finger imaging" part in that case? What if you are 87 years old? What if you don't have a car? Or, an understanding employer?
It is no surprise that the food stamp participation rate in America is abysmal. According to a study by the Food Research and Action Center in October of 2008, only 68% of eligible people in the US cities and urban counties surveyed participated in the program. Cities with the lowest participation rates were: Denver County, Colorado (42%), Clark County/Las Vegas, Nevada (44%), San Diego County, California (29%) (You've got to be kidding me!) and Los Angeles, California (50%). You can download and read this study at this web page.
Such a low participation rate in the Food Stamp/SNAP program is really bad news, and not only because individuals are missing out on aid benefits. This study suggests that the following groups are also missing out:
- Businesses in low-income communities - if residents are not accessing or redeeming the food stamp benefits they qualify for, local economies are missing out on an opportunity to have federal dollars circulating in the economy. The FRAC study estimates that in total nearly $1.5 billion in federally-funded benefits were left unclaimed by the 24 cities studied. That $1.5 billion could have provided a real boost for low-income neighborhoods if the benefits were redeemed. That money would have been the equivalent of the U.S. government pumping cash into the hands of local grocery stores, which would in turn have hired people and created some jobs. The USDA estimates that "under certain conditions each dollar of food stamp benefits generates $1.84 in economic activity." (FRAC study quoting"Effects of Changes in Food Stamp Expenditures across the U.S. Economy" - a USDA study conducted in 2002)
- Local Governments - when people "spend" their food stamp benefits, they purchase taxable goods. Those tax revenues go back to local governments. The FRAC study estimates that my county, Los Angeles, missed out on $353 million dollars in benefits due to lack of participation in the food stamp program.
The FRAC study suggests that lack of awareness about the program and perceptions of stigma might also play a role. After trying to access the benefits yourself, what do you think might deter people?