On the road to independence

Darrell Steinberg is a Democratic assemblyman for Sacramento and chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee

With government programs under attack, the food-stamp program stands out as a remarkable success story. Studies show that for each $1 spent on food stamps, $1.88 is generated for the local economy.

But many Californians who are eligible for food stamps don’t receive them. A recent University of California, Los Angeles, study found that 2.2 million Californians suffer from inadequate food and estimated that 80 percent of the eligible adults don’t get food stamps.

More than 70 percent of the households eligible for food stamps include people who work. In rural areas, as many as 40 percent of working families need food assistance.

I am proud to author Assembly Bill 231, which would boost food-stamp participation by streamlining outdated requirements. The program is fully funded by the federal government.

Unfortunately, the bill has been distorted by critics who claim it would invite fraud. It’s time to set the record straight.

Assembly Bill 231 would eliminate the current $4,650 limit on the value of each recipient’s automobile. California is one of only 10 states that still impose this limit, which hasn’t changed since 1977. The vehicle-value limit keeps people dependent because cheap cars break down, which means their owners can’t get or keep good jobs.

California would join more than 30 states that don’t limit vehicle values—a policy proposed by President George W. Bush. States that have lifted the limit don’t have recipients buying luxury cars. Their average recipient’s car is worth about $7,600. Owning a reliable vehicle will enable more recipients to find jobs and achieve self-sufficiency.

The bill also would clarify that counties must check for problems that could exempt food-stamp applicants from face-to-face interview requirements. Counties still could call applicants in for interviews if fraud was suspected, and all applicants still would have to provide documents to verify their identity and eligibility.

The program would retain strict anti-fraud provisions and tight eligibility limits. Recipients are limited to $2,000 in resources per household, beyond their car’s value. In most cases, net income is limited to the poverty level—$18,100 for a family of four.

Assembly Bill 231 also retains the Income and Eligibility Verification System, which catches 800 cases of fraud per month.

The real tragedy of the food-stamp program is not fraud but under-utilization. This vital program deserves support, not scorn, as it helps hungry people and guides them toward independence.