All developed nations today maintain a variety of welfare programs that serve as a safety net to undertake the effects of poverty. In the United States, one of the most essential programs designed to help low income families today is the Food Stamp Program. Operated by the state and local welfare offices, this program was established to help end hunger and improve the health of thousands of families across the country. Very often, low-income families have difficulty purchasing an adequate diet while meeting all the other basic expenses such as housing, health care, and transportation. Serving a broad range of low-income households, this program prevents malnutrition and ensures the families of resources needed to attain a healthy diet.
This government-sponsored program significantly improves low-income families ability to purchase food through the distribution of food coupons, which is used like cash to purchase food. Issued the first three days of every month, the food stamps are marked in denominations of $1, $5, and $10 and distributed in a booklet to those families who are eligible to receive them. The vouchers are worth their cash equivalent and may be used to purchase foods or seeds in stores that are approved by the U.S. department of Agriculture
with the proper identification. The coupons have some benefits over cash because the recipients do not have to pay sales tax on food stamp items. However, food stamps cannot be used to buy non-food items such as pet foods and paper products, alcohol and tobacco, vitamins and medicine, or any hot foods that are ready to eat.
Applying for food stamps is an extensive process. A personal interview is required for each household and the application process may be different in each state. Usually, one would contact the local food stamp office to attain an application. The office
location can be found through a national hotline, which also provides information on the documents required for application. Proof of citizenship status is needed such as a driver s license or birth certificate (unless they are refugees), along with proof of income and check stubs from earned and unearned incomes. One would also need social security numbers for all members of the household. After turning in the application, an interview would be set up and if qualified, will receive food stamps within 30 days. Persons applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits or other public assistance can apply for food stamps at the same time.
Many factors determine the eligibility of receiving food stamps. Those who generally work for low wages, are unemployed, receive welfare, are elderly or disabled and live on a small income, or are homeless are eligible for the program. More specifically, eligibility requirements depend on how many assets one has, and the amount of income one acquires. Under the food stamps rules, all types of incomes are accounted for to determine eligibility. That includes earned income and unearned income such as other public assistance programs or SSI. Most households must meet both gross and net income limits. Rules on allowable deductions from income consist of: a 20 percent deduction from earned income, a standard deduction of $134 for all households, a dependant care deduction for work or education (no more than $200 each child), medical expenses for elderly or disabled, and excess shelter costs not more than$275.
Resources are also considered in determining food stamp eligibility. Resources such as bank accounts, cash, real estate, personal property, vehicles, etc. are all counted toward the allowable limit. All households may have up to $2,000 limit on countable resources and up to $3,000 for those who are age 60 and older.
Work requirements are also another eligibility standard. Able-bodied adults age 16-60 must register for work, or take part in a training program referred by the food stamp office. Able-bodied adults between age 18 and 50 who do not have dependants can only receive food stamps for three months in a 36-month period it they do not participate in employment programs. Failure to comply with any of the requirements will result in disqualification from the program.
If qualified, the amount of food stamps one can receive is dependent on the number of people in the household and the amount of income the household has. In general, recipients get coupons equal to the difference between 30% of their net monthly incomes and maximum Food Stamp allotments. However, if for example a household of three has no income at all, they would still receive up to $329 a month in benefits.
The federal government takes on a large role in determining the distribution of food stamps each year. The U.S. department of agriculture annually establishes a Thrifty Food Plan which estimates the minimal cost to prepare a nutritious meal. The department of agriculture is responsible for overseeing this program and making changes while the State and local welfare offices operate the Food Stamp Program itself. The department of agriculture also sponsors other welfare programs such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC), as well as school lunch programs.
Through the numerous state welfare reform efforts, there has been a decrease in the number of families receiving assistance in the past several years. Through September 1998, welfare caseloads have fallen 45 percent since 1994, and as a result the number of people receiving food stamps have decreased tremendously as well. While this may appear to be good news, these families are no longer receiving assistance but continue to have very low incomes. In addition, the low-income working families have below poverty earnings but are not eligible for the food stamp program. Food stamp benefits would raise the lower earning families income tremendously and also bring them above the poverty line. This growing trend in society today emphasizes the need to improve access to this program for these low income families.