Food Stamp Barriers Harm Low Income Access to Entitlement

Commentary by Teri Donelson

        For those living in poverty to receive benefits that they are entitled, they go through a large amount of red tape from the Department of Human Services in order to receive benefits. It does not matter your circumstances; those who are poor suffer from the same bureaucracy. A recent college graduate who is currently an AmeriCorps*VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America) member has chosen to live below poverty level for one year to serve her country and today has to fight to receive food stamps from the government. The men living in the YHaven center are having to fight in order to receive their benefits directly instead of being issued them through an intermediary.

        Susan Baker just graduated from Cleveland State University and decided to answer the President’s call and give a year to community service. As a VISTA member, she is not allowed to work or attend school for the entire year of her service. She works a minimum of 40 hours a week and must survive off a “living allowance” of $769 a month, which comes to about $4.43 an hour. Because of the high rental cost in Cleveland, over 50% of her allowance is spent on housing, there is little left for utilities, high gas prices and other bills. Susan only “qualifies” for $33 dollars a month for food stamps.

The Department of Human Service does not consider the “living allowance” as income with other assistance programs such as public housing, TANF and WIC , but with the food stamps, they are allowed to count the allowance when calculating the VISTA member’s income. During President Bill Clinton’s administration, AmeriCorps became the umbrella for all National Service Programs: VISTA, AmeriCorps State and Direct, and National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). All AmeriCorps programs except VISTA members are exempt from this rule; their living allowance is not considered income.

        The conflict seems to be an issue that has been over looked for years. From interviews of VISTA members throughout Ohio, Government entities seems to be confused and do not know the policy so VISTA members continue to receive incorrect information, conflicting answers and more bureaucracy. Kevin Black, a former VISTA member said, “What I don’t understand is why AmeriCorps members receive those benefits when they make more money than VISTA members and they are also allowed to have a second job and they can attend school while they serve, it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

        Brit Rapp, The attorney for the VISTA program confirmed the reason why VISTA members are not entitled to food. When the VISTA program was established in 1973 the farmers learned that individuals would be able to receive food stamps just because they were going to become VISTA members and raised a storm in Washington. They vowed to go to Congress and fight the entire development of the VISTA program if members received full food stamp benefits. So in order to receive some of the benefits like public housing assistance, TANF, and WIC congressional members compromised stating that only members who were receiving benefits prior to service could continue receiving them and not have their living allowance calculated as income.        

        Due to the shift in the economy farmers have become strong advocates for expanded participation in the food stamp program because it is guaranteed money spent on food. “It is hard to believe that over 6, 000 VISTA members across the nation suffer because of the actions committed over 35 years ago” commented Lisa Etling current VISTA members.                 This policy doesn’t apply to AmeriCorps members because when President Clinton established the AmeriCorps program they were able to add on income disregard for food stamps eligibility. There are very few benefits that the majority of VISTA members are entitled to receive because most are single individuals without children. Most VISTA would only be eligible for a small food stamp allocation and residency in public housing which have huge waiting list, since most VISTA members are placed in urban impoverished environments

        Attorney Rapp said that each state has the right to determine whether to consider the VISTA allowance income or not. Baker said this: “I’ll survive somehow for this year. But what bothers me the most is the way I was treated and I couldn’t imagine having to deal with those workers in order to eat! Its completely frustrating because I’m working for the government and the government doesn’t want to help me.”

        At Y Haven, a substance treatment center, they are having trouble with the food stamp department as well. For eleven years on the west side of Cleveland and six years on the east side, food stamps were issued directly to the residents; but now that has come to an end and the benefits for residents will have to be issued through YHaven. As a result the men are now dependent and will not be able to get their benefits directly from the Human Service. Joe Gauntner, Director of Health and Nutrition of Cuyahoga County, confirmed the reason why the men at YHaven are not able to receive their benefits directly. According to Mr. Gaunter, when this program expanded from the west side to the east side the type of license they needed changed. When they expanded to the east side they were considered an “out patient facility”, however, once changes were made they became a licensed “residential treatment center”.

        Under the provisions of The Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, a resident in an alcohol or drug center can not take applications or receive food stamps directly; the “shelter” is supposed to retain the card for the client. The state regulations simply reflect the federal requirements. Chip Joseph, YHaven’s Executive Director says “we made the changes to be licensed as a residential treatment center but we want the men to receive the food stamps directly and not to be given them through the shelter.”

           Angelo Anderson, Job Coach for New Life Community said this, “The bottom line is this: food is a necessity not a luxury. Food stamps is one of the last entitlements available, so why are there so many restrictions for receiving it? It is already a humiliating experience to ask for help, but when you are faced with so many restrictions it makes it an even worse situation. It’s time to go back to the basics in order to receive food stamps. If you live in poverty you should be able to receive those benefits without the bureaucracy. Its that simple.”

        Published in the November 2002 Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio Issue 57