WASHINGTON – The number of Marylanders getting food stamps rose in 2004, capping a three-year span in which food stamp rolls grew 31 percent, to an average of 273,872 people for the year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Advocates and experts differ on whether the increase in food stamp rolls is a good or a bad thing: State officials say the rise means more hungry people are getting food, while researchers say it just means people are taking advantage of a “permissive” program.
But most advocates agree that those increases could be slowed under President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2006 budget, which calls for tightening the “overly broad waivers from the program’s eligibility criteria.”
Analysts expect those changes will eliminate groups of people who only recently began getting food stamps, under broader eligibility rules that helped drive the increase in rolls, both in the state and the nation.
Dorothy Rosenbaum, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, believes working families are most likely to be dropped as a result of the tighter rules.
“Maryland will be disproportionately affected by that (shift) . . . since they took the option to streamline benefits in a way that makes more people eligible,” Rosenbaum said.
Broader eligibility was one of three factors Rosenbaum cited in the growth of the food stamp program, which added 65,446 new clients in Maryland from 2001 to 2004.
Nationally, the program grew from 17.32 million in 2001 to 23.85 million in 2004, the Agriculture Department said, a 37.7 percent increase. Bush’s budget said the program expects to reach as many as 29.1 million in 2006.
Rosenbaum said the federal government expanded food stamp eligibility several years ago, offering the benefit to certain legal immigrants who could not get it before. She also cited the recession and the fact that the process has been “streamlined in terms of how states can provide benefits to people” as factors in the increase in rolls.
Maryland made the system easier for the working poor to navigate by “simplifying the reporting process,” said Connie Tolbert, a Maryland Department of Human Resources spokeswoman.
Recipients who have a steady income no longer have to come in and reapply for food stamps every year, for example, and the department stopped counting a home or a car as a personal asset for applicants.
Both Tolbert and Rosenbaum — who said the food stamp program “responds the most to the economy” of most government programs — see the increase as an example of government acting to help those in need.
But the fact that the need is out there “means that things aren’t good for a lot of families out there,” Rosenbaum said.
Other analysts, however, believe increases in the number of food stamps recipients reflect a problem with the program.
The surge “is a result of the fact that the program is permissive, and that is basically says, effectively, here is some free cash,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“The problem is you have a lot of able-bodied people on food stamps who aren’t really working,” Rector said.
But Joseph Llobrera, a research associate for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that a look beyond the raw numbers shows that “the food stamp program is doing exactly what it is meant to be doing . . . in response to the way the economy is going.”
-30- CNS 02-18-05