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Over 800,000 New York City residents who are entitled to food stamps are not receiving them, according to a leading community-based advocate for the poor, the Community Food Resource Center. Some of the fault for this lies squarely with the city itself, according to several recent reports. New York City’s food stamp offices are not complying with federal law or even with the city’s own policies.

Working people, for example, must take time off of their jobs to apply for food assistance

Investigators from the Office of Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum posed as applicants for food stamps, and were told that if they did not submit paperwork themselves, in person, it would probably be lost. This represents a failure to carry out federal law, which provides a number of ways that working people are allowed to apply for food stamps to avoid having to take time off of work. Interviews can be conducted by phone, another person can file the worker’s application, and applications can be submitted electronically or by mail or fax.

“At the front-line staff level,” explains Anat Jacobson of the Public Advocate’s Office, “it is not clear that the message has filtered down to do whatever you need to do to get food stamps into people’s hands.”

For example, one investigator was told that because she lived in Manhattan, she could not meet with a Bronx caseworker, although applications from residents of all boroughs are accepted at all centers.

UNPLANNED SHRINKAGE OF EXTENDED HOURS

The city attempts to provide evening and Saturday hours at four food stamp offices for people who work nine-to-five. However, staff do not always follow the official schedule at these sites. Investigators visited the four offices a total of ten times and found offices already closed, at least an hour ahead of time, on three visits. On the other visits, investigators were consistently told that they could not schedule evening appointments, and that evening appointments were never scheduled. At the Queens extended-hours site, an investigator was told that to enter the building after 5 p.m., an applicant needed to be accompanied by an employee, unless he or she had a referral slip from a caseworker.

Applicants cannot easily call ahead and verify that a center will be open, because investigators found that two out of three phone calls are not answered. Each borough has only one Human Resources Administration office that is open during extended hours (except for Staten Island, which has none), so for most applicants, these offices are not close to where they live or work, and it is inconvenient to make repeated visits until they catch the office while it is still open.

Once they enroll in the food stamp program, participants must re-certify four times a year, a process that the city insists on doing through face-to-face interviews. This poses more difficulties for working people who cannot schedule an interview during their off hours. Nearly two-thirds of employed New Yorkers with income below the poverty line receive no paid sick days or vacation days, according to a recent survey (in pdf format) by the Community Service Society.

OTHER BARRIERS TO ACCESS BY WORKING FAMILIES

The second report released recently, an audit by the United States Department of Agriculture, examined a sample of case records at a Bronx office. Auditors discovered several applicants who had been wrongly denied benefits, for such reasons as ineligibility for welfare—which is no longer required to get food stamps--and lack of a Social Security number.

A third report was released in September 2003 by the City Council, which also sent investigators posing as applicants. They found that some city workers failed to use a shortened application form that has been required under state law since June 30, 2003. They also found incorrect addresses and nonexistent offices listed on the city’s web site, and lack of applications and posted information about food stamps at several sites.

A check of New York City agency web sites on December 9, 2003 showed several errors that could make it hard for applicants to file paperwork. On the Human Resource Administration’s site, the list of Manhattan offices did not indicate which one has evening and Saturday hours. More problematic was the site for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which did not even tell viewers that there were offices with extended hours. The list of food stamp offices there was quite different from that of the Human Resources Administration; of the 20 addresses given, 8 had been identified as being incorrect in City Council investigative reports.

MAJOR IMPROVEMENTS IN THE PAST TWO YEARS

For individual applicants who are turned away from the food stamp office, each error, however minor, can mean days of hunger. However, the big picture shows that the Human Resources Administration has made substantial improvements in the last two years, which are acknowledged in all three reports.

The city fought for and welcomed the federal restoration of eligibility to many immigrants cut off from food stamps by the 1996 immigration reform legislation. The Human Resources Administration has translated program materials into nine languages, and hired 29 community-based organizations to help enroll immigrants.

When clients with disabilities leave welfare for Supplementary Security Income, food stamps can now follow them automatically. Similarly, when beneficiaries leave welfare because they have started working, they automatically continue receiving food stamps for five months, at which point they must file a new application.

A leading community-based advocate for the poor, the Community Food Resource Center, is under contract with the city to spread the word about the availability of food stamps. The center runs a Food Stamp Media Campaign that advertises food stamps through bus and subway signs, radio spots, and pamphlets. The agency also offers potential applicants a computerized pre-screening to find out whether they are likely to be eligible.

MORE NEW YORKERS ARE RECEIVING FOOD STAMPS

These efforts have paid off, with the October 2002 enrollment in food stamps up to 918,298, nearly a 10 percent increase over the previous October. Enrollment is finally back to levels last seen in 1999, when welfare reform was stripping people of food assistance when they lost cash benefits. This is still far below the 1995 peak enrollment.

Today, many welfare recipients have been replaced by the working poor on the food stamp rolls, as was intended by policy makers. Yet less than 17 percent of food stamp recipients in New York State are employed. In the United States overall, 28 percent of food stamp households report earnings. In some states the rate is much higher: 40 percent of Texas participants are employed, and the state actively encourages working families’ participation by conducting enrollment and re-certification interviews by telephone.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONTINUED IMPROVEMENT

The Public Advocate has made several recommendations to help low-income families get the food assistance to which they are entitled. Two would change current city policy: that food stamp applications be posted on the Internet, as federal law requires as of November 12, 2003; and that the city actively publicize alternatives to missing work to apply for food stamps.

Her other recommendations involve improved administration of existing policies: making sure that evening and Saturday appointments are truly available, retraining food stamp personnel in the alternative ways of accepting applications, and making sure that food stamp office employees working on Saturdays are qualified to meet client needs.

The City Council recommends that food stamp applications be made available in more government offices used by low-income people, such as public schools, Medicaid offices, and the drop-in centers run by the HIV/AIDS Services Administration.

BLOOMBERG ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATIONS

In December 2002, after a previous City Council report, the Executive Deputy Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, Seth Diamond, testified that, “We regularly ask undercover workers to go to Job Centers, often late in the day, to seek to obtain an application and ensure that they will be seen that same day. While in the overwhelming number of cases individuals are told they will be seen the same day they apply, in the cases where the potential applicant is told they will not be seen, we have taken disciplinary action against the worker. This information is also used in our JobStat process for evaluating the performance of center directors.”

The Administration did not respond to an inquiry about whether its own investigators reported the same shortcomings as did the Public Advocate, the City Council, and the Department of Agriculture. The Office of the Public Advocate has not received a response from the Administration regarding its findings or recommendations. City officials did not attend a City Council hearing on food stamp access on November 24, 2003, and have not yet responded to written questions from the Council.

LOST OPPORTUNITY FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

“The main point is that there are lots of people who could benefit from wider use of food stamps,” says Jacobson. “It’s not just for the people who need food on the table. They’re also an economic stimulus.”

The 800,000 New York City residents who are entitled to food stamps but not receiving them represents, at an average annual benefit of $1,100 per person, nearly a billion dollars in lost federal aid – money not spent in bodegas and local grocery stores.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.

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