Reward planned to boost food stamp enrollment

08/28/07 11:47AM By Ross Sneyd
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(Host) Almost 30% of Vermonters whose income qualifies them for food stamps never apply.

So state officials plan to use a reward from the federal government to boost enrollment.

VPR's Ross Sneyd has the story.

(Sneyd) Only five other states can claim to be as good as Vermont is in making sure people who qualify for food stamps get them, and keep them.

The federal government says every Vermonter who applies and meets eligibility criteria gets the benefits.

Nancy Johner is the U.S. under secretary of agriculture who's in charge of food stamps.

She presented Vermont's Department of Children and Families a check for more than $268,000 to recognize its record.

(Johner) "That's why when we see this kind of good work, we definitely want to be here to reward that and applaud Vermont for doing such a great job."

(Sneyd) An advocate for the poor applauds state government for making such strides.

Tim Searles of the Champlain Office of Economic Opportunity says there didn't used to be such an effort at trying to get benefits to people who deserve them.

(Searles) "The state of Vermont has really changed its attitude. I can remember when an error rate was measured in the state of Vermont by the Department of Social Welfare as an individual who received food stamps who wasn't eligible. Whereas they didn't measure the number of people who were eligible for food stamps and were denied. That was not considered an error."

(Sneyd) The new challenge for state government is to make sure that every person who qualifies for food stamps knows it and takes advantage.

Steve Dale is commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, which administers the food stamp program locally.

(Dale) "We as a state are making a very strong commitment to do substantial outreach to people, to help them understand that this is available and it's a really, really important benefit."

(Sneyd) Dale's department plans to use some of the bonus money it's been awarded to do just that.

Experts say there are a variety of reasons why people don't apply for food stamps.

Some people are embarrassed to be seeking public assistance. Others aren't aware of the program or think they probably wouldn't qualify.

Applicants have to meet a number of criteria. One of the basics is income. A family of four can't have a gross monthly income of more than $2,100, for example.

Dale says a lot of working families qualify and he hopes to make it easier for them to apply.

(Dale) "There are a number of states that have made this process easier and easier: People able to apply for benefits over the Internet; various other initiatives which make it easier. People don't have to take time off work, come in to district offices. All the disincentives that get created the more complex and burdensome a process is."

(Sneyd) About 49,000 Vermonters currently get an average of $186 a month in food stamp benefits. State officials say that only represents about 72% of the people who are eligible.

For VPR News, I'm Ross Sneyd.

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