Enhancing Food Assistance During the Economic Downturn

The front page of Sunday’s New York Times was a stark reminder of the harsh impact of the current economic downturn: One in eight Americans now uses Food Stamps to supplement their food budget, and the number of Food Stamps recipients is rising rapidly.

In New York City, even before the recession started, more than 1.3 million people — one in six New Yorkers, and one in five children — lived in households facing food insecurity, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.  Over the past year the number of Food Stamps recipients in New York City has grown, but tens of thousands of eligible New Yorkers still do not receive this vital Federal benefit.

As we noted in a recent blog post, one of the reasons for this is Mayor Bloomberg’s misguided, punitive requirement that Food Stamps applicants undergo “finger imaging.”  New York City is one of the only places in the country to maintain this onerous, unnecessary requirement.  And it’s costly, too.  Indeed, the NYC Coalition Against Hunger estimates that finger imaging costs around $800,000 in administrative expenses and does little to prevent fraud.

Another barrier for potential Food Stamps recipients — and one that affects many homelessmen and women — is Mayor Bloomberg’s refusal to seek a waiver of Federal restrictions in order to allow poor adults to receive Food Stamps benefits.

As Jarrett Murphy noted on the Huffington Post in July, Mayor Bloomberg has stubbornly retained a mean-spirited and counter-productive Giuliani-era policy limiting access to Food Stamps for many unemployed individuals.  As Murphy describes it:

“When the federal government adopted welfare reform in the mid-1990s, it restricted access to food stamps as well as to cash benefits. If you were not disabled, didn’t have kids and weren’t working, you could only receive three months of food stamps in any three-year period. But the feds recognized that there would be times and places where that rule could be unreasonably strict. So they permitted states or counties with high unemployment to apply for a waiver that would allow childless, able-bodied people to get more extensive benefits.

“In the past two years, all or parts of 46 states (as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and, oh yes, Guam) have applied for or received waivers, including Alaska, North Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and other rock-ribbed ‘red’ states.”

New York City, whose unemployment rate exceeds the national average, has long qualified for the waiver.  But former-Mayor Giuliani, with his rabidly anti-poor ideology, refused to seek the waiver, and Mayor Bloomberg has stubbornly followed suit.

Sadly, homeless adults are among those hardest hit by this punitive policy.  Given the reality of record homelessness and rising unemployment, what reason can Mayor Bloomberg offer now for refusing to take simple, effective measures to enhance food assistance for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers?

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