The Food Research and Action Center has just released a report on participation in SNAP (the food stamp program) in 24 large urban areas, including Washington, D.C. It’s a mixed message–both for the cities as a whole and for the District.
On the positive side, the food stamp program is providing crucial nutrition assistance to a very large number of low-income people in these urban areas–about 7.1 million as of May 2009. Of these, somewhat more than 99,000 live in D.C.
Not surprisingly, caseloads have increased dramatically. Between May 2008 and May 2009, the total U.S. caseload increased by 21%–more than 5.9 million people. Growth in the District’s caseload was substantial, but smaller–14.5% or about 12,540 people.
Yet a very large number of individuals and families who could receive food stamps aren’t getting them. FRAC estimates 2007 participation in the surveyed cities combined at 67%–nearly the same as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nationwide estimate for the year.
What this means is that nearly 2.8 million big-city residents were missing out on a benefit they probably needed. And the cities were missing out on nearly $1.7 billion in federal funds that could have supported their local economies.
These overall figures mask large differences among the cities. In San Diego, the participation rate was only 35%, while in Philadelphia it was 93%, with Detroit close behind at 92%.
The District’s participation rate was 82%–better than all but six of the surveyed cities. But looked at another way, about 18,500 people missed out on nutrition assistance they were entitled to. And the District missed out on nearly $10.3 million in unclaimed benefits. That translates into an estimated $18.9 million in lost economic activity.
There’s no simple remedy for the participation gap because there are many reasons eligible people don’t enroll in the food stamp program. High on the list are:
- Lack of awareness they’d be eligible–or that they’re still eligible. (There’s apparently a fairly common belief that food stamps, like TANF benefits, are time-limited.)
- An unfounded by understandable concern that participation would jeopardize their immigration status.
- The length and complexity of applications for the program, combined with extensive documentation and verification requirements.
- Language barriers–I’m guessing even for people with some command of English.
- The costs of enrollment–transportation to food stamp offices, fees for required documents, lost wages because time has to be taken off from work, etc.
- Long waits for appointments and/or for certification–these undoubtedly growing as caseloads rise.
- Re-certification requirements, which in some areas mean frequent trips back to the office with more documentation.
- Benefits too low to offset the costs and hassle of the application/re-certification process.
- Perceptions that food stamp recipients are looked down on and/or that there’s a stigma attached to receiving any government assistance.
So state and local government officials will need to look carefully at their own populations, their program requirements, applications and intake process and also their outreach efforts. They’ve got a lot to gain and so do a great many low-income people who are struggling to feed themselves and their children.
D.C. Hunger Solution’s terrific guide to getting food suggests the District is doing a lot of the right things. But it’s obviously got more work to do–and a lot to gain from the effort.