While the fact that low-income families in Montana—one of the more economically depressed states in the union—have a relatively hard time putting balanced, nutritious meals on the table should come as no surprise, a new study released by Montana People’s Action (MPA) holds some startling figures that reveal the depth of the problem.
The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations (NFCO), which engineered the study, interviewed 650 low-income families (those earning less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line, or $26,475 per year for a family of four) in six western states; more than 100 of those families reside in Montana. Of the families surveyed, more than half said they did not have enough money to purchase sufficient food during the previous month, and 30 percent of adults and 11 percent of children indicated there had been at least one day over the last year that they went without food altogether.
Additionally, the majority of families reported that they could afford to provide “balanced, nutritious” meals only one to three times per week. The release of the study coincides with current congressional consideration of the federal Farm Bill, which includes reauthorization of the Food Stamp Program. Together with the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, MPA and NFCO are calling on the U.S. Senate to make significant improvements to the Food Stamp Program, which lost some of its teeth at the hands of the 1995 Congress.
Although the Food Stamp Program is largely a federal one, states are responsible for the enrollment of eligible families. And that, according to the study, is where much of the current system’s inadequacies can be rectified. Chief among the organizations’ concerns is the gap between families eligible for the Food Stamp Program and those who actually receive the benefits. In Montana, for example, the report shows that although 99,000 people were eligible for food stamps in 1998, only 62,328 people received them.
The culprit in the gap between eligibility and enrollment, the study says, is that age-old bureaucratic bugaboo, red tape. Qualifying families, many of whom are headed by one or more adults working full-time jobs, currently must undergo a labyrinthine process to apply for and maintain benefits. A host of solutions—from assisting families in completing applications to streamlining the application form itself—are necessary to ensure a higher participation rate, according to the study.
In addition, the organizations believe that the Food Stamp Program must be updated to reflect today’s reality, citing an outdated nutritional and economic base upon which the program was founded.