The expansion of the food stamps program is just another “tool in our utility belt,” claimed D.C. Councilperson Michael Brown on April 6 at a press conference. The Food Stamp Expansion Act of 2009, authored by Brown in March 2009 and effective March 15, 2010, broadens the provision of food aid to include an initial estimate of over 4,500 previously ineligible individuals.
Katie Kerstetter, from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, spoke about the necessity of the move, citing an overall increase in unemployment in the past two years. “Food stamps went up 30 percent,” she also said.
Two separate initiatives were created by this Act. The Categorical Eligibility Initiative loosens restrictions on who can receive food stamp assistance, making the upper limit of income 200 percent the poverty level and removing limits on assets altogether.
Previously, anyone whose income exceeded 130 percent of the federal poverty level or who possessed financial assets over $2,000 could not qualify for food stamps. The current poverty level for an individual in D.C. is $10,830; for a family of three, it’s $18,310. Under the old rules, a single person making $20,000 a year would not be eligible.
Categorical Eligibility also provides instant food stamp eligibility for those already enrolled in a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)- funded program.
A second initiative stemming from the Act, the Heat and Eat Initiative, combines the food stamps program and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by automatically enrolling food stamp recipients into LIHEAP.
LIHEAP is a federally funded program that helps pay cooling and heating bills for those in need of aid. LIHEAP’s automatically enrolled participants will receive a minimum of $1 in annual benefits from the initiative. Benefits in place before the new initiative are unaffected by the enrollment, making the annual benefit an addition, not a replacement. The Heat and Eat Initiative will also allow recipients to exclude the $276 utility allowance each month from their net income, the after-taxes amount by which assistance is determined. The lower net income preserves LIHEAP recipients’ eligibility for other benefits.
On hand at the press conference were representatives from D.C. Hunger Solutions and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. They provided statistics on hunger in the District as well as the story of one mother in particular.
Vell Perkins testified at the hearing concerning this Act when it was originally proposed. A mother of four, Perkins said that she has had trouble providing for her family even though she has a full-time job.
Her salary, she said, has been frozen as rent increases. Although she had applied for food stamps prior to the Act’s passage, Perkins said she was “just over” the previous income limit and is only now eligible.
According to the Hunger in America 2010 report conducted by the nonprofit organization Feeding America, 20.7 percent of those surveyed who went to pantries, kitchens or shelters providing food were ineligible for food stamp benefits because of their income level.
However, the Food Stamp Expansion Act of 2009 will ensure “the basic need for just having food in the house” will be met, said George Jones, executive director of local non-profit Bread for the City. He added that approximately 5,000 households would receive assistance.
Brown emphasized the low cost of the bill for the District-none at all. “This is the greatest expansion act in the city’s history,” he said. “No local dollars are being used.”
Food stamps are a federally funded program, which leaves the District to cover administrative costs. Both councilmembers Brown and Cheh brushed off these costs as minor and worth it in light of the anticipated economic stimulus. “$15-20 million in new benefits will turn into $35 million in local business activity,” said Brown. “It’s significantly higher dollars for our folks.”