Stamp of disapproval 

Seniors, disabled feel the bite of food stamp cuts

Despite the best efforts of lobbyists, advocates for the elderly and the disabled, and state public health workers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in September discontinued a program that allowed Montana’s senior citizens and the disabled to qualify for more food stamps than they would ordinarily receive.

For many seniors, food stamps have now dwindled to nothing, or next to nothing. Some receive the minimum of $10 a month—enough to cover a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk and little more. Congress will likely negotiate a solution by next year, but in the meantime, thousands of Montanans are caught in nutritional limbo, forced to rely on food banks, the Salvation Army or the kindness of strangers.

According to Karlene Grossberg, public assistance bureau chief for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), the “utility waiver program” as it was called, allowed seniors and the disabled to deduct $304 in utility costs each month from their taxable incomes. With less reported income, their food stamp allotments were increased, regardless of where or how the recipients lived. Disabled people living in group homes or senior citizens living in subsidized housing were allowed to take the utility deduction even if their utilities were included in the monthly rent. For some seniors living on Social Security and/or small pensions, the utility deduction was the difference between buying food at a grocery store and having to stand in line for Salvation Army food baskets.

Virginia Rooney is one senior who did just that this holiday season. Rooney, who lives alone in a Missoula apartment, was receiving $65 a month in food stamps thanks to the utility waiver. But because her utilities are included in her monthly rent, she can no longer claim the monthly deduction once the USDA dropped the utility waiver. Her food stamps were reduced to nothing as of Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal government’s 2002 fiscal year.

Receiving only $481 a month from Social Security, Rooney had to rely on two food bank deliveries and one Salvation Army handout during the holidays, which she received after standing in line with about 600 other people at the Missoula County fairgrounds shortly before Christmas. “I ate humble pie,” she admits.

Rooney could be a poster child for her generation. Discouraged by society for years from working outside the home, Rooney never built up a job-related pension or a Social Security nest egg. She now lives alone with very little to get her through each month.

“My generation wasn’t trained to work,” she says. “You were trained to be a wife and mother.”

In her apartment complex near St. Patrick Hospital, there are many elderly women in her situation. Few, she says, ever worked or had careers, and most have had to rely on food stamps. Now, many are forced to cut their monthly expenses wherever possible just to be able to eat.

The elimination of the utility waiver has pushed Rooney, a political neophyte, into a career of sorts. Rooney has called a press conference on Jan. 8 to explain to whoever will listen what it means to Montana’s senior citizens and disabled residents when they lose their food stamps. All the major political players have been invited: Montana’s congressional delegation, Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas, Gov. Judy Martz, Missoula County Commissioner Bill Carey, Missoula City Councilwoman Lois Herbig, and representatives from local senior citizens’ centers and food banks.

“One can only hope” that politicians will show up for the event, says Walter Simon, a retired public relations man who has offered to help Rooney in her efforts. Rooney would like to make a bigger political issue of this dilemma by placing it on the 2002 ballot, though she’s at a loss to explain exactly how that would work. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy in here that I don’t understand,” she admits.

Simon is afraid that a ballot measure might not be the right solution, but something has to be done, he says, because senior citizens need fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets. “You can’t survive after 65 on Top Ramen,” he says. “You’d be better off going to a dumpster.”

Grossberg at DPHHS says the state probably will do something to feed low-income senior citizens and the disabled, but not for many months.

The USDA, which administers the food stamp program, had wanted to cut the utility waiver long before September 2001, she says, and it was only arm-twisting from the state of Montana that allowed the program to continue for as long as it did. For a time, the state had a deal with the USDA in which the feds agreed to pay about two-thirds of the cost of running the program and the state paid the remainder, about $500,000 annually. DPHHS had hoped to continue that arrangement through September 2002 when Congress is expected to reauthorize the food stamp program.

Grossberg says the utility waiver program is now obsolete and has been eliminated by virtually every other state in the nation. If allowed to continue for another year, a better program likely would have replaced it by September 2002.

Grossberg says Montana just needed to buy some time from the USDA to allow Congress to hammer out a better food stamp program this year. “We fought a good battle to keep our waiver,” she says.

With the failure of that effort, thousands of Montanans will now go at least a year with little or no help from the federal food stamp program.

Grossberg, chagrined at the failure of efforts to keep the program going, believes that a better program will probably come of the food stamp reauthorization this year and that, in the long run, seniors and the disabled will be better off for it. But until Congress negotiates a better food stamp program, Montana’s neediest citizens will continue looking to food banks for help.

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