Originally created 03/01/97

Cut food stamp loophole



With all the talk about welfare reform, it's appalling to learn Georgia's changes in the food stamp program still add up, in many communities, to what is essentially a free ride.

Last December state and local authorities notified able-bodied food stamp recipients with no dependents that they'd lose their benefits in three months unless they found a job or enrolled in a work-experience program. Welfare reform advocates, not to mention taxpayers, applauded the move to encourage work and responsibility.

Well, three months are up - and in Augusta only 126 out of 1,624 recipients made any effort to comply with the program. If the new rules meant what they say, 1,498 people would be having their food stamps cut off. But the rules don't mean what they say.

Georgia welfare officials sent word this week to Augusta and four other cities (Atlanta, Macon, Lagrange, Albany) that due to higher than normal jobless rates the federal government is granting them an exemption.

Bottom line: fine print in the highly-heralded reforms say statistical data are more important in determining food stamp eligibility than is changing dependent behavior.

Talk about loopholes! This turns the program into a farce.

The government is taking the easy way out. It's simpler to grant waivers based on unemployment rates than to force bureaucrats to deal with individual cases.

A city's jobless count is irrelevant. People won't find jobs anywhere unless they look for them. The only issue that should count is whether recipients are making an earnest effort to comply with the new rules. If they are, grant a waiver until they find work; if not, kick them off the food stamp rolls.

The Augusta figures clearly show the problem with food stamp reform isn't lack of jobs, but failure to obey the rules. That's terribly unfair to the handful of people who are obeying the rules - and to taxpayers who must continue picking up the tab for irresponsible behavior.

Moreover, the fine-print loophole encourages even more recipients to ignore the program's requirements. It creates incentives for food stamp deadbeats in communities with low jobless rates to migrate here where the rates are higher.

If food stamp reform is to succeed - and fulfill expectations of reformers and taxpayers - then lawmakers better get busy cutting the program's ties to meaningless jobless data.