Government help without the hassle? That’s exactly what the state welfare agency is planning for folks receiving SSI and living alone—namely, the single and the elderly.
At press time, the agency was gearing up to send benefit cards to nearly 100,000 people statewide, 60,000 of them in New York City. Nobody receiving the mailing will need to fill out forms, talk to a caseworker or visit an office to start using the benefit. “They often don’t know about it, or [don’t] apply for it,” explains Michael Hayes, a spokesperson for the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers the food stamp program. “We’re just going to give it to them.”
The program marks a radical departure from the status quo. The city is currently facing litigation in Williston vs. Eggleston, a federal class action suit filed by advocates in June, for failing to provide food stamps to eligible households within required time frames.
The case is the latest installment in a series of battles over the federal program. In 1999, the federal agency that administers the program, the USDA, lambasted the city for using overly restrictive eligibility requirements for the program. That same year, in Reynolds v. Giuliani, a federal court ruled in favor of advocates who charged that the city was illegally discouraging applications for benefits and encouraging people to seek private assistance from food pantries and family members instead.
While food stamp participants are expected to surpass one million this summer, there are still an estimated 700,000 New Yorkers eligible for the program who do not receive it, according to the Community Food Resource Center, a nonprofit that runs food-stamp outreach programs with support from both government and foundations.
Bolstering participation in the program, argues Jodi Harawitz, CFRC’s director of food access, rests on identifying people who are likely to qualify. One outreach program that they’ve run for the last two years has offered pre-screening services at stores like PathMark and Western Beef—and they’ve recently pitched the program to the feds. (CFRC expects to hear back about its application in September.) Workers walk shoppers through a “food stamp calculator” designed to screen for eligibility and benefit levels. The result? People who normally wouldn’t apply find out they could be getting some help with their groceries. “They know it’s an onerous process,” explains Harawitz. “They don’t want to do it unless they know they are going to be eligible.”