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Better times are coming for many of the hundreds of thousands of New York City families who are eligible for food stamps but because of an arduous application process and strict eligibility requirements have never gotten the assistance.

In October, a series of food stamp reforms that President Bush signed into law as part of the 2002 Farm Bill will go into effect, including a gradual restoration of benefits to many legal immigrants. The law, which adds $6.4 billion to expand food stamp enrollment over the next decade, also allows states to relax application requirements and extend the period in which families leaving welfare for work can receive “transitional” food stamps–to five months from three.

New York State will take advantage of each of these optional reforms, promised state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Commissioner Brian Wing. “We’ll be able to help both the state and the people by making it easier for those who want food stamps and who may have been discouraged in terms of paperwork,” he said.

The state also plans to create its own reforms to further boost enrollment. Joining successful programs in other states like Texas and Washington, OTDA in the next several weeks will begin automatically awarding food stamps to any New Yorker who qualifies for Supplemental Security Income benefits–namely the elderly and disabled. State officials expect that will add another 125,000 people to the rolls.

In addition, OTDA plans to introduce a simplified food stamp application form next spring, modeled after a pilot program in the Syracuse area. For example, questions about the health status of non-family household members will be cut out along with other sections, reducing the application to four pages from 16.

Many anti-hunger advocates are pleased with the federal and state changes. But at a press conference on the steps of City Hall last Wednesday, they urged the city to do its part by improving Human Resources Administration’s accessibility to applicants. According to a study released by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, New York City has seen a 2 percent decrease in food stamp enrollees since the recession began last June, while the rolls have grown in other cities–from a 5 percent increase in Los Angeles to 31 percent in Dallas.

Gotbaum and others called on the Bloomberg administration to expand public outreach and increase the hours during which HRA accepts food stamp applications (currently, only 3 of 20 food stamp offices are open on evenings or Saturdays.) In addition, they say that caseworkers themselves should stop discouraging applicants from seeking food aid. “HRA is still riddled with a culture that shows little compassion for needy families seeking benefits,” charged Carlos Rodriguez of the Community Food Resource Center.

HRA officials respond to these criticisms by pointing out that since Mayor Bloomberg and HRA Commissioner Verna Eggleston took over, the number of food stamp recipients in the city has been inching back upward, to 820,526 in July from 798,404 in December. (The decrease highlighted by Gotbaum occurred late last year, under the previous administration.) HRA says it welcomes the new federal and state changes that will make applying for benefits easier. Says HRA spokesperson David Neustadt, “We’d like to see even more simplification.”