ST. LOUIS — Poor Americans are leaving food stamps in record numbers.
In part, this is good news: The booming economy is generating jobs that are pulling many families out of poverty. The not-so-good news: Many working families still eligible for the benefit no longer apply for it.
"The decline in food-stamp participation has been unprecedented," says Craig Gundersen, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) economist.
The question is why? Where some economists, including Mr. Gundersen, largely credit a strong economy, poverty experts worry that welfare reform has gone too far.
Sometimes overtly and sometimes inadvertently, state welfare systems are discouraging poor people from signing up for food stamps, advocates charge. And the government safety net, conceived in a different era, may no longer be suited for the needs of poor families in today's welfare-to-work era. .
"Poverty is about working families now," says Stacy Dean, an analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. "I don't think the system has recast itself as an effective system of work supports."
This week, the USDA released a new study showing that food-stamp rolls had fallen to 18.2 million last year, down from 27.5 million people in 1994.
The drop has not increased hunger in America, but it has pushed more of the burden off of government and onto private charities.
The new report found that the economy can explain 35 percent of the drop. Welfare reform - and states' de-emphasis of benefits - only accounted for 12 percent of the drop. But the report could not explain the rest of the decline.
Economists and advocates for the poor offer different explanations. Gundersen says many poor families are doing so much better that they qualify for only minimal food-stamp benefits and don't think they're worth the hassle of signing up. Others, he suggests, may be more in need but expect to land a job soon enough that they don't bother to apply.
Poverty advocates counter that food-stamp benefits for legal immigrants and many able-bodied adults without children were cut in 1996. The broader welfare-reform movement also created a new atmosphere that discouraged poor people from using government help, they argue.
The debate is important. Food stamps represent the largest federal food-assistance program, and one of three main elements of America's safety net for the poor (welfare and Medicaid are the other two). Last year, the US paid out nearly $16 billion in food-stamp benefits - an average $72 per recipient per month.
If the booming economy has caused most of the drop in participation, then when the economy sours, food-stamp rolls will swell again and the program will play its part as a safety net.
But if the program no longer serves poor families adequately, then it will prove especially deficient during the next downturn.
The Urban Institute in Washington last year released a study showing that nearly two-thirds of the families that had dropped food stamps were still eligible. And nearly a quarter of former welfare recipients who left food stamps were in the bottom half of families earning poverty incomes.
The situation differs by state. Wisconsin, for example, lost 45 percent of its food-stamp recipients between March 1995 and July 1999. That's the largest decline of any state in the nation. And the strong economy doesn't completely explain the drop.
In 1994, some 97 percent of Wisconsin's poor families used food stamps; by 1998, 70 percent did. Better-off poor families seem to have stuck with the program even though they were eligible for fewer benefits, according to a report released this week. The number of recipients getting only $10 per month has increased 17 percent since 1995.
But the decline seems to be fueled in part by Wisconsin's so-called "light touch" approach to encouraging work rather than dependence on federal aid. "Some local staff were inappropriately not discussing eligible benefits," says Janice Mueller, Wisconsin state auditor, whose office conducted the study. "There was confusion, and perhaps ... that is being improved."
Indeed, an outreach program is helping to push Wisconsin food-stamp participation up an average 0.8 percent per month.
Sometimes, a state's de-emphasis of food-stamp benefits is inadvertent. New regulations force families to reapply every three months - a major inconvenience for those who work. And case workers, unfamiliar with the new regulations, may not be able to inform the poor. Poor families themselves may conclude - wrongly - that because they don't qualify for welfare benefits they can't get food stamps either.
"The rules and regulations changed so drastically that no one understands the rules of the game anymore," says Peter De Simone, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, a nonprofit policy group in Jefferson City, Mo. Missouri has seen food-stamp rolls drop by a quarter between 1996 and 1998 even as its number of poor increased by some 29,000 people during that period.
One result: Private food pantries report that their clientele is growing.
"There's no way we can keep up with the demand ... of people leaving the program," says Doug O'Brien, director of public policy and research at America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief group.
The food banks of the Chicago-based network turn away 1 million people a year, even though donations of food are up by one quarter - 210 billion pounds a year - since 1996.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society