Food Stamp Program:

Various Factors Have Led to Declining Participation

RCED-99-185: Published: Jul 2, 1999. Publicly Released: Aug 2, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed states' efforts to reduce participation in the Food Stamp Program, focusing on: (1) the reasons for the recent drop in food stamp participation; and (2) any problems that households with eligible children have experienced in obtaining food stamps.

GAO noted that: (1) the strong U.S. economy, tighter food stamp eligibility requirements, and welfare reform initiatives are the primary reasons for the decline in food stamp participation; (2) according to the states, participation has dropped mainly because fewer people are eligible to receive food stamps--a result of the strong economy and changes in food stamp eligibility; (3) however, most states also believe that welfare reform initiatives designed to reduce the welfare rolls have lowered food stamp participation; (4) children accounted for about 48 percent of the total decline in participation in fiscal year (FY) 1997, the most recent year for which detailed data are available; (5) moreover, children's participation in the Food Stamp Program has dropped more sharply than the number of children living in poverty, indicating a growing gap between need and assistance; (6) some households, including those with eligible children, have had problems obtaining food stamps because some state and local governments have gone farther than the law permits in limiting benefits; (7) believing that welfare families need to become self-reliant and break their dependence on government assistance, these state and local governments have taken steps that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has subsequently found to be excessive; (8) in addition, many former welfare recipients do not receive food stamp benefits because several state and local governments have not publicized differences in the eligibility requirements for welfare and food stamps; (9) the states' actions occurred, in part, because USDA has not promulgated regulations for implementing revisions to the Food Stamp Program enacted almost 3 years ago; and (10) furthermore, USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has not reviewed potential participants' access to food stamp benefits in 10 states since the beginning of FY 1997.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that eligible people receive food stamp benefits, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FNS, to promulgate regulations implementing the Welfare Reform Act's revisions to the Food Stamp Act. These regulations should, at a minimum, require that the states: (1) inform each applicant for assistance of the right to apply for food stamps during the first meeting, regardless of whether the applicant applies for other assistance; and (2) sanction the food stamp benefits only of the individual who does not comply with requirements of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA promulgated regulations in November 2000 and January 2001 that required the states to (1) inform each applicant for assistance of the right to apply for food stamps during the first meeting and (2) sanction the food stamp benefits of only the individual who does not comply with a welfare requirement.

    Recommendation: To ensure that eligible people receive food stamp benefits, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FNS, to publicize eligibility requirements for the Food Stamp Program and distinguish them from the eligibility requirements for the TANF program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 14, 1999, President Clinton announced a national public awareness campaign aimed at educating potential food stamp recipients about their rights. USDA has made 32 different materials available in the forms of brochures, flyers, and posters to help people ascertain whether they are eligible for food stamp benefits.

    Recommendation: To ensure that eligible people receive food stamp benefits, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FNS, to give higher priority to aggressively targeting issues related to participants' access to food stamp benefits in reviewing states' food stamp operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: During fiscal year 2000, FNS emphasized participant access issues in reviewing food stamp operations in each of the 50 states and the Virgin Islands.

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