WASHINGTON – The number of food-stamp recipients in Maryland fell 13.3 percent over the last year, the second-largest decline in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
State and federal officials could not point to a definitive reason for the drop in Maryland’s food stamp rolls, which fell from 247,177 recipients in June 1999 to 214,207 in June 2000. Consequently, they could not say whether the drop was a good thing or a bad thing.
Government officials and advocates for the poor said the booming economy was at least part of the reason for the drop. But advocates also pointed the finger at bureaucrats, saying they are too quick to cut off benefits and not eager enough to help low-income families navigate the maze of regulations and paperwork to get benefits restored.
“There is a whole lot of bureaucracy and red tape involved in this,” said Toni Graf, executive director of Annapolis Area Ministries Inc., a private non- profit organization involved with emergency and transitional programs.
She said some families have been cut off from food stamps without even receiving any notices to renew their applications. Many are people who are leaving welfare for work, she said, and losing food-stamp benefits even though they may still qualify because their wages and benefits at their new jobs are so meager.
But state officials said part of the problem lies with the food-stamp recipients themselves.
“Welfare caseloads in the state have dropped by 67 percent since 1995. A large portion of that 67 percent drop, were receiving food stamps,” said Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
“Their mindset is that welfare and food stamps are a package deal, when it’s not,” said Jones. “Many of them are still eligible for food stamps but are unaware of that.”
While officials cannot agree on the causes of the decline, there is general agreement on what needs to be done to slow it.
Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities, laid out three steps that state officials and low-income families should take. First is to educate the public on the criteria for food stamp eligibility and the second is to make the enrollment forms more friendly.
“The present form is very complicated and long,” said Meade. “The state should make it less perplexing and get rid of the stigma that is associated with it.”
Another requirement is to keep local government offices that deal with food stamps open later into the evening, to assist former welfare recipients who are now trying to hold down jobs.
“People who are eligible are not applying for food stamps today because they will have to sacrifice a day at work to complete the enrollment formalities,” said Meade. “Being available for the public after their regular work hours will make a big difference.”
Maryland’s 13.3 percent drop in food-stamp recipients was more than three times the national average rate of 4.4 percent during the same period. Delaware, with a 22.6 percent drop, was the only state to see a sharper decline than Maryland.
“We haven’t been able to study the situation in Maryland specifically,” said Shirley Watkins, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the Department of Agriculture. “But this is something we are very concerned about and we have asked state officials to study the situation and notify people on their eligibility.”