2004-01-21 / Editorials

Cutting Through Red Tape For The Hungry By City Councilmember Eric Gioia

The thought that there are people who will go to bed hungry tonight in our city is a sad fact. The realization that we could be doing something about it that we’re not doing is an outrage.

In administering the Food Stamp Program, the city of New York mostly acts as an intermediary, passing the benefits on to recipients. In exchange for the city covering minor administrative expenses, this program, funded with federal dollars through the Department of Agriculture, provides more than 909,000 New York City residents with the sustenance they desperately need. This might be wonderful news were it not that an estimated 800,000 more New Yorkers, a large portion of whom are hungry children, are eligible for food stamps and don’t receive them. What’s standing in the way of roughly $960 million in federal funding from reaching our city’s children, seniors, unemployed and those working hardest to make ends meet? What is preventing an infusion of nearly $1 billion into our local economy? Sadly, nothing more than bureaucratic red tape.

Recent studies have found that 32 percent of New York City parents had trouble coming up with enough cash to buy groceries or were unable to buy food at least once over the past year, yet a family of four with a gross annual income of up to $23,532 could qualify for food stamps. Our own investigation reveals that the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the city agency charged with implementing the food stamp program here, has kept the application process for food stamps needlessly difficult, leaving New Yorkers’ access to food stamps woefully inadequate. HRA listed incorrect addresses for food stamp offices and job centers on its Web site. Food stamp applications were not available at nearly one out of every four correctly listed locations. A person lucky enough to get their hands on an application was asked to provide 14 pages of personal information, rather than the four pages recently mandated by state law crafted to make the application process less cumbersome.

HRA has improved and implemented some of our recommendations since we first discovered these inadequacies. We first revealed this unfortunate state of affairs from HRA listing incorrect addresses to some of the offices on its Web site, to workers at sites not giving applications to potential recipients and even to applicants being told they were ineligible without even being handed an application in an investigation in December 2002. We commend HRA for the improvements it has made, but the enduring problems show how much more needs to be done.

This persistent bureaucratic ineptitude may explain why when the city’s unemployment rate went up almost 18 percent, and food stamp enrollment went up 8 percent in New York state and 9 percent nationwide from January 2002 to January 2003, it increased by only 4 percent in New York City during that same time. And the mayor estimates it will go up only 1.7 percent in the next year.

In a time when unemployment in our city is high, increased food stamp enrollment would not only feed people in need, it would provide some lift to our sagging economy. By allowing people with little discretionary income to use the cash they would otherwise spend on food on other necessities, food stamp participation brings real money into our local communities, where it can spur further economic activity. Conservative estimates indicate that this increased spending would amount to roughly $1.4 billion in economic activity. Our city’s failure to realize this potential represents much of what is thought to be wrong with government.

In the absence of a well-implemented government program, community-based organizations throughout New York City have been filling the void, developing initiatives to broaden access to food stamps. With funding from the city council, the Community Food Resource Center has conducted wide-scale food stamp outreach and advertising. The city council has also introduced legislation that would require city and city-affiliated agency employees to be informed of their potential eligibility for tax credits and social service benefits, including food stamps.

These efforts, while necessary and commendable, don’t absolve the city of its responsibility to feed the hungry. By implementing the simple reforms we suggest immediately, our city will take a big step toward eradicating hunger and improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, seniors and working families. Each of our proposals will eliminate a barrier to access and eliminate layers of bureaucratic red tape, making it easier for New Yorkers to receive the benefits to which they are entitled by law.

We need HRA to run a functional and competent Food Stamp Program. To that end, it should do the following immediately: Update and maintain its Web site to ensure the correct information is provided and guarantee that simple, short food stamp applications are available to all food stamp offices and job centers and are provided to anyone who asks.

In times of need, New Yorkers’ generosity can be truly inspiring. Some will donate to their favorite charities. Thousands will volunteer in senior centers, shelters and soup kitchens. We deserve a government that will match these private acts of charity and generosity with a public commitment to provide the assistance it can to those who need it most. In the greatest city in the greatest democracy on the face of the earth, it is unconscionable for a single child to go hungry night after night. Our city can take a big step toward eradicating hunger and improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, seniors and working families.

Eric Gioia represents Woodside, Sunnyside, Long Island City and Maspeth in the 26th Council District.

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