The underbelly of success


NO ONE waited to apply for food stamps or any other social service last Wednesday afternoon at the Howard County social services office east of Columbia.

Surprised? You shouldn't be.

Since 1995, the number of Howard County residents participating in the food stamp program has dipped 31 percent. The caseload of welfare recipients has fallen 86 percent, whittled down by reform rules and a robust economy.

But is there more to the story? Has the stigma of the dole dissuaded eligible families from applying for help? Or are they doing well enough that hassling with regulations isn't worth it?

Whatever the cause in Howard County, the drop in food stamp recipients nationally worries Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, whose department runs the food stamp program.

"Too many Americans are still going hungry," he says.

He's right.

Social service officials in some states say federal regulations, which are unwieldy and inflexible, could be discouraging eligible participants.

One example: Though an automobile is often needed to support a job, it could make an applicant ineligible for food stamps if it's worth too much. So-called "asset limits" bar some from aid they need -- especially if they are trying to make it from welfare to work.

These barriers are being lowered, but more needs to be done to inform Americans of food stamp eligibility. Some apparently believe that reform regulations bar them from assistance or that, because they have a job, they are not eligible. Not so. Depending on income, they still may qualify.

For many, the help offered by food assistance could improve chances of staying employed while low beginning wages rise to a point where the help isn't required.

That help is needed and appropriate.

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