When it comes to helping people weather the effects of a recession, few things are as effective as food stamps. The benefits go to those most desperately in need, and because they must be spent on essential goods, they serve as an immediate boost to the local economy. But it only works if the benefits get in the hands of the right people.

That's why it's troubling to see Maryland lagging behind other states when it comes to enrolling eligible families for the benefits and processing the applications of those who seek food stamps. Figures calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and released by Advocates for Children and Youth show that as of 2007, Maryland only enrolled 59 percent of those eligible, ranking 41st among the 50 states. Add to that the case of Miracyle Johnson, a pregnant mother of two from Baltimore County who sued in April because the state failed to process her application within the 30 days required by law.

State human resources officials say they've improved their procedures in the last two years and are now able to process applications more quickly. But there's a lot more the agency could be doing to get needy people signed up for the federal food stamps program. Two big reasons Maryland is falling behind are that, first, officials have failed to take relatively simple steps to reach out to the 350,000 state residents who are eligible for food stamps but aren't enrolled in the program; and second, that they have done nothing to reduce the bureaucratic barriers that keep eligible families from enrolling and staying enrolled.

Although the overall number of food stamp recipients in the state has gone up since the recession began, that's mostly due to the fact that job losses have made more people eligible, not because the state is trying harder to sign people up. Reaching out to people who qualify for food stamps but aren't getting them should be a top priority, and there's already a successful model for that: the state income tax form that almost all Maryland residents file each year. In addition to income information, the form asks whether any children in a household have health insurance. When the tax form is returned, the comptroller's office calculates whether the family income qualifies the children for Medicaid coverage. If it does, the state automatically sends out an application.

Why can't the state do the same thing with other benefits, such as food stamps? It costs the state little but is a way of reaching needy people that's proven effective.

Schools are another place to reach out. School systems have a strong incentive to enroll students in federal free and reduced-price lunch programs because they get extra money under the state's Thornton funding formula. But the vast majority of kids who are eligible for federal lunch programs also come from families that would qualify for the food stamp program. Why not make a joint application for students to take home to their parents? And again, it would cost the state almost nothing to combine the two application processes. Why make people fill out a dozen different forms for each of a dozen benefits?

That's just one of the barriers that prevent people who are eligible for government benefits from claiming them. But in Maryland, the most egregious bureaucratic hurdles are the endless lines people endure waiting for the face-to-face interviews Maryland requires before certifying applicants' eligibility. In Baltimore County, people have had to put up with long and humiliating waits for such interviews, only to have overstretched social workers lose their paperwork and put them through the entire ordeal all over again. It was just such a debacle that led Ms. Johnson to sue. Her trial began yesterday.

Meanwhile, the state is sitting on federal stimulus funds that would allow it to drop that requirement and let people interview over the phone. It already has a successful pilot program in Harford County, but it's made no effort to replicate that model across the state. Nor has it partnered with local community organizations to create one-stop application centers where families could sign up for all the benefits they are eligible for at the same time. Many more people could sign up if there were hundreds of places to apply for benefits rather than a couple dozen.

State officials may say they're doing more to help people, but the lack of urgency suggests they don't really understand the magnitude of the problem. It is difficult, given Maryland's budget challenges, to ask the state to devote more resources to anything, but in this case there are many steps officials could take at small cost to the state.

Not only does the law require the applications to be processed promptly, but getting benefits in the hands of those who need them is also among the most efficient ways to help restart Maryland's economy. With more than three-quarters of a million Marylanders in need of help putting food on the table, no one should have to negotiate the maze of bureaucratic hurdles officials have erected simply to get the benefits they are entitled to.

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