Group: Millions of eligible people don't get food stamps

Noble Johns

If you are poor in this country and too proud to get food stamps, you are dumber than I thought! More than 3 million needy people in big cities could be getting food stamps but don't for a variety of reasons, an anti-hunger group says.

That translates to $2.1 billion in unused food stamps, the Food Research and Action Center said in a report scheduled for release Wednesday.

The group analyzed Census data to see how many people are eligible for food stamps in 25 large cities, then checked county or city data to see how many actually receive them -- only 62 percent, or nearly 5.4 million.

The Food Research and Action Center opposes cuts in food stamps, which lawmakers may consider as they trim $3 billion from agriculture programs in coming weeks.

"The first thing Congress should do is not make budget cuts in the program," said Jim Weill, president of the Washington-based group.

Food stamps come in the form of a debit-style card that can be used at supermarkets and other retailers. Who qualifies is determined largely by federal rules, although states have some leeway in deciding.

There are many reasons why people who qualify don't get food stamps, the report said.

Many immigrants are eligible but face language or cultural barriers or are unaware they qualify, the group said.

Some local policies are burdensome or confusing. Weill said that in Washington, D.C., people were notified that they qualified but not told they had to attend an information session on using the debit card before actually receiving the benefit.

"They sat waiting for food stamps to arrive, which they never did," Weill said. Officials later fixed the problem.

Federal dollars pay for food stamps, which are part of the Agriculture Department. States are in charge of running the food stamp program and pay about half the administrative costs. Federal authorities pay the rest.

Agriculture Department officials have worked to make the program simpler and spread the word about who's eligible, spokeswoman Terri Teuber said.

The department has given grants to local and state groups, including faith-based and community organizations, to reach out to eligible people who haven't applied, she said.

"We want to ensure that all who are eligible know about the program and receive nutrition assistance with dignity and respect," Teuber said.

Among those eligible to receive food stamps but not getting them, the widest gap was in Oakland, California, where an estimated 23 percent of eligible people in Alameda County get food stamps.

Next was San Diego County, California, with 26 percent of those eligible getting food stamps, and Houston, where an estimated 40 percent of Harris County residents got food stamps.

The highest levels of participation were in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and the Memphis area in Shelby County, Tennessee. In those communities, 90 percent of people eligible for food stamps received them.

Nationwide, about 25 million people get food stamps each month, according to the most recent Agriculture Department data.

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