As Needs Rise, Few Receive Emergency Food Assistance

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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Holocaust survivor Yankel Teytelman left behind the hardships of Ukraine only to find poverty in Brooklyn.

When 73-year-old Teytelman and his wife, Vera, immigrated to America in late 2000 they quickly found themselves burdened with $650 in monthly rent, and only $500 in federal aid to cover all their expenses. The Teytelmans would seem to have been the ideal candidates for public food assistance, which would have made the difference between canned food and fresh, healthy meals.

When they applied, though, they were rejected because they came to the United States after 1996. The cutoff date was one of many restrictions on federal and state food programs that left large groups of immigrants ineligible for assistance.

Earlier this month, however, the Teytelmans won a case in a New York Supreme Court that they and six other immigrants had brought against state authorities, challenging the legality of these restrictions.

While the larger ramifications of the court case are as yet unclear, the case shines light on what advocates for the poor say is a much larger problem: Many of America’s poorest are not receiving any public food assistance.

Eligibility for food-stamp programs has, in fact, expanded in recent years, as rights have been restored to many low-income Americans who were dropped from food-stamp rolls by the 1996 welfare reforms. But restrictive rules and problems with the administration of food-stamp programs continue to leave many of the most needy without any access to aid.

“There have been some hopeful changes in the numbers of needy people being serviced by the programs,” said Sheila Zedlewski, a director of the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “But there is still a long way to go before the bulk of the needy people are receiving assistance.”

Most of the problems in the food-stamp program stem from the 1996 welfare reforms, which drastically limited eligibility for federal food assistance. While 25.5 million Americans received food stamps in 1996, there were only 19 million on the food-stamp rolls in 2002.

Generally, local and state governments are responsible for enlisting low-income people in the federal program. The cutoff for eligibility is the federal poverty line, which, according to statistics from the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, would make at least 5% of American Jews eligible.

While the restrictions confronted by the Teytelmans are one legacy of the 1996 reforms, a larger issue, according to many experts, is the low number of even those eligible for the program who are receiving benefits.

Nationally, 40% of individuals eligible for food stamps did not receive benefits in 2002, according to research released in November by the Food Resource and Action Center. Many of the states with the largest low-income populations were also the states with the lowest participation rates, including Texas, California, New Jersey, Florida and New York.

A study released last week by the Nutrition Consortium of New York State found that systemic problems in the state’s administration of the food-stamp program have significantly lowered participation.

According to the report, local officials have not adequately publicized shifting eligibility rules and have not done simple things like taking applications over the phone to ease access for the elderly and disabled. An estimated 1.3 million eligible New Yorkers did not receive food stamps during 2002.

Meanwhile, many poor Americans continue to remain ineligible because of restrictions introduced during the 1996 reforms.

Among those most seriously hit by the 1996 reforms were legal immigrants. All immigrants who arrived in the United States after 1996, as well as those who had left the country for more than 90 days, were ineligible for assistance.

The Teytelmans’ court case was challenging similar restrictions in a New York state-run food-stamp program that was created in 1997 to fill gaps created by the federal cutbacks.

Advocates for the poor had applauded the state for creating the program — one of many that had been created in the wake of the welfare reforms — but they say this court case highlights that state programs frequently adopted the arbitrary restrictions of the federal program, leaving many immigrants without access to food aid.

In her December 11 ruling, New York Supreme Court Judge Marilyn Diamond ruled that the distinctions between immigrants “carves out the terms and conditions of immigration which New York alone has decided are desirable and appropriate” and that are contrary to their rights to equal protection under law.

The judge restored food stamps only to the plaintiffs, but the fact that she based her ruling on constitutional grounds has led poverty advocates to suggest that the precedent could be extended to other immigrants in New York who had been deemed ineligible for aid.

In recent years the number of immigrants relying on state programs, like New York’s, has been dwindling. The 2002 federal Farm Bill reinstated federal food-stamp eligibility for many immigrants, making large parts of many states’ food-aid programs obsolete. But advocates for the poor say that many immigrants are still left off the federal rolls and rely on state programs for assistance, making the court case significant.

A number of other states’ food-aid programs still have restrictions similar to those of the New York program, and advocates express hope that these too could be successfully challenged as a result of the Teytelman decision.

“This precedent would be important in a number of other states,” said David Super, general counsel at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and an expert on food-stamp issues. “I would say roughly a dozen have restrictions on immigration that could be turned back.”

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