WASHINGTON — It was not surprising that Texas held out.
For years, Texas was among a handful of states that required every resident seeking help with grocery bills to first be fingerprinted, an exercise typically associated with criminals.
Even though Gov. Rick Perry ultimately got rid of the policy, Texas – always seeking to whittle down “big government” – remains one of the most effective states at keeping its poor out of the giant federal food stamp program.
But it is not No. 1. That distinction belongs to California.
Liberal California discourages eligible people from signing up for food stamps at rates conservative activists elsewhere envy. Only about half the Californians qualified for help get it.
That stands in contrast to other states, including some deeply Republican ones, that enroll 80 percent to 90 percent of those whose low incomes qualify them.
That public policy paradox – one of the country’s most liberal states is the stingiest on one of the nation’s biggest benefit programs – has several causes, some intentional, some not. It also has two clear consequences: millions of Californians don’t get help, and the state leaves hundreds of millions of dollars of federal money on the table.
The federal government pays almost all the costs of the food stamp program, which provides cash aid to about 46 million Americans at a cost of $74.6 billion this year. States administer the program.
In Washington, those costs have generated a furious debate that will heat up again next month when Congress returns from its summer recess.
While the federal government pays the bill, states reap an economic boost from more people with money to spend on groceries.
Cash for food is so close to free money for states that several, such as Florida, with a Republican-controlled Legislature and a conservative GOP governor, pay contractors to scour the landscape persuading people to enroll in the program.
“It is impossible to get states to do conservative types of reform to this program,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has tried and failed to get GOP-controlled states to enact tougher enrollment standards.
“The things they could do, they don’t,” he said. “It would bring them political controversy and no financial gain for their state. It is like asking them to jump into a buzz saw and to bring their governor along.”
Not so in California, where onerous paperwork requirements, inhospitable county benefits offices and confusing online applications often prevail. While the USDA’s latest study reflects the participation rate in 2010, agency enrollment figures released since then leave California stuck in last place.
In California, sometimes even those who qualify get rejected, as understaffed agencies prove unable to properly process applications.
Edlyn Countee had no idea she was eligible for food stamps until a friend who volunteered at a food bank brought it up. The 61-year-old from Oakland applied. She was rejected. “They said I made too much money,” she said. “I figured, ‘There goes that.'”
The friend insisted that there had been a mistake and that Countee should keep at it. The advice was solid, but it took an attorney from Bay Area Legal Aid calling social services officials, and Countee filling out an affidavit, before she got her $101 per month.
In Washington, the debate over food stamps has pitted Republicans, concerned about how much the program has grown, against Democrats who defend it. But that partisan divide does not truly reflect the reality of food stamp use back in lawmakers’ districts.
Much of the program’s growth involves the deep recession that started in 2008. But a big part stems from states that have actively tried to boost enrollment.
California has been slow to follow, as 36-year-old Sarah Palmer, a single mother from the East Bay city of Albany, discovered when the state threatened to cut her off unless she could produce receipts every few months detailing her child care costs.
“Every three months I had to ask the day care to write a note detailing what I paid,” she said. Staff would keep forgetting. “Finally, one day I had to go in and tell them. ‘You know, we are receiving food stamps. I really need you to write this note for me.’…. It was humiliating.”
In most other states, Palmer would not have to produce such receipts; few require as much paperwork and none still require people to keep proving their eligibility as often.
“People are being denied benefits because of policies California chooses to employ,” said Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate at the nonprofit Western Center on Law and Poverty.
Some of those policies came into place under two Republican governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned on promises to vigorously root out government waste.
Schwarzenegger vetoed several bills to end the state’s fingerprinting of food stamp recipients.
“Our first responsibility to taxpayers is to take necessary steps to prevent fraud and abuse,” he wrote in a 2005 veto message.
In 2011 the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California concluded after a study that the costly fingerprinting process did little to combat fraud but did discourage 280,000 qualified people from signing up for CalFresh, as the food stamp program is known in California.
By then, even Texas had done away with fingerprinting. That October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill ending California’s fingerprinting requirement.)
Other hurdles, however, involve a problem that affects much of California’s government: the outmoded and inefficient data-intake systems the state uses to process applications. Different county agencies use different software programs, often incompatible with one another.As other states have moved nimbly to overhaul their application processes, constantly simplifying them, California finds even a minor tweak can be a monumental undertaking.
The state’s complex history of dealing with immigrant families also has had a lingering effect. Only 20 years ago, California voters directed law enforcement to prosecute suspected undocumented immigrants who applied for benefits.
The state’s requirements to produce bank statements, utility bills, day care receipts and until recently, fingerprints have left many immigrants, even those in the country legally, wary that an application will trigger a visit from immigration authorities, advocates say.
California is also one of 13 states that has a lifetime ban on food stamps for anyone convicted of drug dealing.
At a recent hearing in Sacramento, Wendy Still, chief adult probation officer for San Francisco, urged lawmakers to lift the ban, which affects roughly 20,000 felons. “If an individual does not have this basic need met, it can trigger an episode, an addiction, and then that triggers the cycle (of criminal behavior) over and over again,” she said.
Brown has taken several steps to loosen the state’s rules. In addition to ending the fingerprinting requirement, he also signed a measure that reduced the number of times each year applicants need to prove they qualify for assistance.
Yet nobody expects California to reach a participation rate of 92 percent anytime soon. That figure comes from conservative Tennessee, where Republicans control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers.