Applying for food stamps

February 16, 2010Jon Brooks Comments Off

“…my one suggestion would be to apply if you think you will need it, not when you need it.”

About 12% of the U.S. population now uses food stamps. But how easy is it to apply?

Here’s a post from someone who tried to enroll in the program, from the blog On Food Stamps, which attempts to document “the experience of living on a restricted food budget while maintaining a diet that consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other nutritious, sustainable food.”

I realize that many people reading this Blog might not be aware of just how difficult it is to actually access food stamp benefits, so I want to explore this topic a little bit.

I will start by asking you to try something. Figure out how to get food stamps in your city or county. Start with Google (lucky you, you probably have a personal computer). I’m not giving you any clues. Find the number, and call the office. Tell them you want to see if you can get food stamps and see what they say. Report back to me in the comments section, I’d love to hear your findings.

Back in February I did the same experiment. This is how it went:

• I called the number I found online while at work, and I was on hold for 15 minutes. That next-agent-will-be-with-you-shortly music is maddening.

• When someone finally picked up, I told them I wanted to get information about accessing food stamp benefits. They tried to get me to do the eligibility quiz online, but I said that I had no access to the Internet. (Sort of true. It wasn’t set up in my apartment yet.)

• The agent said “Ok, well then you can come in in person to fill out the paperwork.”

• I asked, “When can I come?”

• He said, “Monday through Friday 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM.”

• “But that is when I have to be at work,” I said, “Is there any other time I can come in to the office?”

• No, there wasn’t.

• “Ok,” I said, “When can I make an appointment?”

• “There are no appointments,” he told me, “you just have to come in.”

• “Hm. I’m taking off of work to come in for this appointment, so can you at least give me an idea of how long it will take?”

• He said he couldn’t guarantee anything or quote me any type of time frame. I would just have to come and get in line with everyone else. Sounds a lot like a visit to the DMV… not so great.

The appointment I was talking to this agent about would be the first of three appointments required to get everything squared away. I would have to fill out a 7 page application (used to be 21 pages), and get my finger prints taken during one of these visits. (This is to prevent fraud.) I am an hourly employee with no vacation time yet, so I would have to hope that my boss is nice enough to let me off of work on 3 separate days for an indefinite amount of time to complete the application process. All of this work and inconvenience for a maximum of $44/week. Mind you, $44 is the benefit for an unemployed person, so I would likely be getting much less than that for my troubles.

I think you will agree with me that this process is incredibly intimidating and a quite a pain in the ass. What if English is your second language? What if you cannot read very well? What if your children are citizens, but your own immigration status is questionable? How would you feel about that whole “finger imaging” part in that case? What if you are 87 years old? What if you don’t have a car? Or, an understanding employer?

It is no surprise that the food stamp participation rate in America is abysmal. According to a study by the Food Research and Action Center in October of 2008, only 68% of eligible people in the US cities and urban counties surveyed participated in the program. Cities with the lowest participation rates were: Denver County, Colorado (42%), Clark County/Las Vegas, Nevada (44%), San Diego County, California (29%) (You’ve got to be kidding me!) and Los Angeles, California (50%)…

(One) study suggests that lack of awareness about the program and perceptions of stigma might also play a role. After trying to access the benefits yourself, what do you think might deter people?

Here’s a response to this post from somone actually on the program:

As a new food assistance recipient, I will say it was a 2 month process. I am a stay at home mom and my husband is self employed. With the failing economy (especially here in MI)we consider ourselves semi employed or semi retired. I am lucky because I have a computer and Internet so I was able to apply online. But in all reality, it would have probably been faster to apply in person. I waited over 30 days just to get someone to talk to me about my application. It took 1 1/2 months to get an interview and a request for proof of identity, income, etc. Then it took another 2 weeks to get approval and my EBT card. I waited until I just couldn’t wait to get on food stamps any longer. I was happy to find out they would back date benefits to the application date but when I really needed it, it was nowhere to be seen. So my one suggestion would be to apply if you think you will need it, not when you need it.

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