The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:
President Bush proposes to make food stamps available once again to many legal immigrants who are living in poverty. Enactment of his plan would be a long-overdue correction of one of the worst excesses of the 1996 welfare reform bill, which stripped legal immigrants of eligibility for food stamps and a variety of other benefits. Congress backed away from those Draconian cuts slightly in 1998, allowing legal immigrant children and legal immigrants who were elderly or disabled, and who had come to the United States before the 1996 laws were passed, to qualify for food stamps. Bush's plan would extend eligibility to legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years. Administration officials estimate that eventually as many as 363,000 additional people could qualify for the program. This is a welcome step, but it's not all that needs to be done.
Food stamps are a vital part of the safety net for the poor, particularly important in a time of economic stress. They are the purest of the federal aid programs: To qualify, all a household needs to have is a low income. In the middle of the last decade they helped feed about a tenth of the nation's population, some 27 million people. By early last year the number was down to roughly 17 million, in part because of the economic growth of the 1990s but also because of the effects of the 1996 bill. As the economy slowed last year, applications began to pick up, and by October the rolls stood at 18.4 million. The decline during the late 1990s was due not only to the loss of immigrants but also to a reduction in participation by people still qualified for benefits. Many families that left welfare were still entitled to food stamp benefits but frequently weren't told so. The percentage of eligible recipients enrolled in the program went down, from 71 percent in 1994 to 59 percent by the end of the decade. Fewer than half of eligible working families have been participating. Both the federal and state governments ought to be doing more to make sure that qualified people get the support the program offers.
The annual cost of the food stamp program went down from about $25 billion in the mid-1990s to about $15 billion last year. The drop in the rolls accounts for most of the decline, but the 1996 law also reduced benefits, in part by eliminating an adjustment for inflation.
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