Hunger persists in America despite a strong economy. Since the passage of the welfare reform law [TANF] in 1996, we have seen a disproportionate drop in food stamp enrollment. Participation in the Food Stamp Program has declined over 27% in the past three and a half years. Poverty, however, has only declined 7%. This means that six million more poor people are without food stamps than in 1995. USDA determined that 6.1 million adults and 3.3 million children live in households that experienced hunger during 1998. Children who go hungry do poorly in school, score lower on tests, have more disciplinary difficulties, and face increased health risks. Hunger rates are highest in households with children led by single women or minorities. The Urban Institute reports that 33% of former welfare recipients must skip or cut meals due to lack of food.
The Hunger Relief Act of 1999 is an opportunity to address these issues. This bill would authorize $2.5 billion in spending over 5 years to repair specific weaknesses in the current Food Stamp Program. The bill would address:
- Eligibility: Restoring food stamp eligibility to all legal immigrants.
Food stamp eligibility was based exclusively upon need for over 30 years. The 1996 welfare reform law changed that by disqualifying people for food stamps based on immigration status alone. In 1998, Congress restored eligibility to a third of the legal immigrants who need assistance. Still ineligible are immigrant taxpayers working in low-wage jobs, the elderly, parents sharing resources with children and children who arrived here after 1996. These people need to be included in the program.
- Vehicle Deduction: Allowing states to use their higher TANF standard in determining the value of a family's car.
Increasingly a car is a necessary means of transportation as more jobs move to the suburbs where public transportation is often limited. This need is heightened in rural areas where public transportation may not exist. Under current food stamp rules a family who owns a vehicle worth more than $4,650 can be disqualified from the Food Stamp Program. This value limit has risen by only $150 since 1977 while the cost of private transportation has risen significantly more. The amount which most states use to determine vehicle value and a family's eligibility TANF is higher than the food stamp amount. States should be able to use this higher value in determining eligibility for food stamps.
- Shelter Deduction: Raising the shelter deduction cap to $340 and indexing it to inflation.
The Food Stamp Program allows families to deduct from their available resources their housing costs that exceed 50% of their income. This enables the Program to more accurately estimate the actual household need for assistance. The current cap on the amount which can be deducted in establishing need is $275. While elderly individuals are exempt from the cap, working families are subject to it. As housing costs rise, many families are forced to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children. Families should not have to make such a choice.
- The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) Increasing by 10% the money available for commodity purchases and food distribution.
TEFAP uses private and volunteer resources to meet short-term nutrition needs of families in crisis. It also serves as an outlet for excess government-owned commodities, and reduces need for recourse to Food Stamps. Need for emergency food has increased 15 -20% over the past year. In 1998, 39% of families who sought emergency food included and employed adult, and 38% of emergency food recipients were children. The private charitable sector cannot meet present needs alone. The nation needs to invest more resources in meeting the nutrition needs of families in crisis.