Maryland has won a nearly $1 million federal grant that will make it possible for poor families and the elderly to avoid a sometimes embarrassing trip to their local welfare office by signing up for food stamps and medical aid online.
The state Department of Human Resources plans to set up a new system in the next two years that will let people figure out if they're eligible -- and fill out the necessary paperwork -- by simply logging onto a computer.
"There are some people who are eligible and not applying," said Richard Larson, a program director for the state agency. "They don't want to come in because there is some sort of stigma attached, a sense of 'I don't want my friends to see me there.'"
The computer project, which will be launched with the United Way of Central Maryland, is getting a jump-start with a $938,057 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One hitch is that many poor, elderly and disabled people do not have computers hooked to the Internet.
Public libraries, however, offer Internet service. And so will all community agencies that are part of United Way, which will promote the new service.
Maryland is one of six states, along with Arizona, New York, Minnesota, Michigan and Tennessee, that outbid more than 30 others in a competition the federal government sponsored to encourage greater use of available food stamps.
Eric M. Bost, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food and nutrition, is to make it official today at a 10 a.m. ceremony in Baltimore by handing over the check to state and United Way officials.
Applicants will be able to request food stamps, medical assistance and emergency cash. And, unlike local offices, said Margarita Maisterrena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, the Web system will be "open around the clock." Some states already have computerized food stamp systems, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Maryland provides food stamps to about 293,000 residents, up by a few thousand from two years ago. However, during the same period, the state's food stamp budget has shrunk, from $323 million in fiscal 2004 to $286.6 million today.
Across the country, including some areas of Maryland, fewer people have applied for food stamps in the past few years because they fear they're no longer eligible as a result of welfare reform, according to Larson.