LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Kevin Concannon runs all 15 food and nutrition programs for the U.S. government and wants states like California and Texas to do a better job of getting food stamps into the hands of people who have fallen on hard times and don’t know where to turn.
As high unemployment and a weak economy put millions of Americans at risk of hunger, states like New Mexico, Oregon and Washington are using just about every tool available to get food stamps to individuals who qualify, said Concannon, the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture.
“The same can’t be said of California or Texas or some other states,” Concannon told Reuters. “If you live in California, you ought to be as eligible for those benefits as if you lived across the line in Oregon.”
Government research shows that about a third of the people eligible for food stamps in the United States were not receiving them in 2007, the latest year for which data is available. And the situation was worse in California, Florida and Texas, where only about half of eligible people were getting help through the program now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
In a bid to boost enrollment, the federal government is waiving some old requirements. For example, states now have the option to interview elderly and disabled applicants over the telephone rather than in person, or to allow families to keep more savings in the bank for emergencies.
Many people who are now out of work are unaware that they don’t have to be destitute before they can get help putting food on the table, said Concannon, who added that he wants states to make special efforts to sign up the newly unemployed, senior citizens and legal immigrants.
The number of U.S. food stamp recipients roared to a record 37.2 million in September. And while that count has risen by roughly 10 million since the official start of the recession in December 2007, some experts believe that as many as 16 million more people are eligible but not receiving food stamps.
While the SNAP program is designed to fight hunger, it has a secondary benefit of boosting the economy because money from food stamp redemptions is injected directly into the economy.
A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for SNAP, showed that every $1 of food stamp expenditures generates $1.84 in economic activity.
And a state like California, which has been harder hit than many other states by the housing downturn and unemployment, has a lot to gain from boosting SNAP.
“There are economic benefits for everyone, for the entire state, if we increase participation,” said Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate at California Food Policy Advocates, a nonprofit that works to assist low-income individual’s in accessing healthy and affordable food.
In August, there were nearly 2.9 million Californians getting benefits under the federal food stamp program.
If the Golden State were to sign up the additional 2.9 million people whose income would make them eligible for SNAP, it would receive an estimated $3.7 billion in additional federal benefits each year, which could in turn generate $6.9 billion in statewide economic activity, Shimada wrote in a CFPA report called “Lost Dollars, Empty Plates.”
In the report, CFPA urged the federal government or California lawmakers to stop requiring fingerprints from SNAP applicants. Critics say the benefits of the pricey fraud prevention step do not outweigh the cost and that it actually reduces participation.
California also is the only state that requires food stamp participants to report their income and household status every three months. Beneficiaries from other states send in that information every six months, which reduces the likelihood of paperwork snafus.
Editing by Christian Wiessner