WASHINGTON – Poor people are still going hungry across the country and in Maryland, despite a booming economy and plenty of federal aid to combat the problem, according to two reports released by hunger advocates Friday.
Precipitous drops in the food stamp rolls are partly to blame, according to America’s Second Harvest and the Food Research and Action Center. Since 1996, participation in the nation’s “keystone” hunger program has dropped nearly 30 percent, without a corresponding drop in the poverty rate.
In Maryland, the decline from November 1996 to November 2000 was even steeper — 41.1 percent — higher than all but Delaware and California.
Advocates say some of that decline is due to federal welfare reform that made certain groups, such as legal immigrants, ineligible for food stamps. But they said Maryland and other states could be doing much more to encourage participation among eligible groups.
“It’s more acute in Maryland,” said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center. “They have a long way to go.”
But officials with the state Department of Human Resources argue that increasingly onerous federal regulations and antiquated re-certification requirements intimidate people from applying for food stamps. The program has not kept pace with other welfare reform legislation that encourages people to work, they say.
“They want people to come back very often for re-enrollment,” said Earlene Wilson, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources. “If you’re telling me now that I need to go to work and you’re supporting me to go work. . .but I have to come into your office every two months, when can I do that? I’m working.”
Richard Larson, a policy and research director at the department, agrees.
“It’s a program that’s caught in a time warp. It’s still back in the 1960s,” he said. “The program is such a crazy quilt of regulations, it’s very difficult for me to explain to someone why or why not they might be eligible.”
But advocates argue that other states have found ways to hold on to their food stamp recipients under the federal regulations that Maryland officials complain about.
“If one can figure out how to do it in a more user-friendly way. . .it’s interesting that some states use the excuse, `We just can’t do it,'” said Vollinger.
Larson said that smaller food stamp rolls might not be such a bad thing. He attributed much of the attrition to the booming economy.
“What you’re seeing in Maryland is the effect of Maryland’s robust economy, which reflects the nation’s robust economy,” he said.
He added that Maryland’s overall welfare caseload has also plummeted, falling nearly 68 percent since 1995. Nelson said the department has done studies of people leaving the welfare rolls and found that they are better off. “Most people probably think that’s a good thing,” Nelson said.
But Rob Hess of the Center for Poverty Solutions said it’s not a good thing, because people are not well off after welfare, he said.
“It really gets me angry, because what they’re saying is that people are going from welfare to work and that’s all great,” he said. “That is just a gross mischaracterization of reality.
“The reality is that. . .we’re moving into a generation of moms and children who are getting their meals from soup kitchens,” Hess said. “Is that really what we want in one of the richest states in the nation?”