|First up, those eligible for food stamps don't all participate at the same rate. Take a look at this:
Food Stamp Participation in 2003
56% of total eligible population
74% of eligible children
28% of eligible elderly individuals
62% of individuals in households with no earnings
47% of individuals in households with earnings
Source: Sources of Variation in State-Level Food Stamp Participation (PDF)
So when you see the HUGE discrepancy between the 89.5% of eligible food stamp recipients who participated in Missouri in 2003 and the miserably low 29% of those who participate in San Diego, that explains part of what's going on. If San Diego's eligible population is made up of demographics that are less likely to participate, then naturally San Diego's participation rate will be lower as a result.
That explains SOME of the discrepancy but not all. Another possible explanation is that differing state policies make it more or less likely for those eligible to apply or receive food stamps. For example:
- Certification period - How frequently must an applicant reapply (between 3-12 months)
- Reporting requirement - Are applicants required to report any changes in income? (And if so, how frequently?)
- Categorical eligibility - Is any group of people automatically eligible for food stamps if they are eligible for another government program?
- Fingerprinting - Are applicants subject to fingerprinting, which might discourage some from applying?
- Application page length
- Work requirements - Are able bodied adults required to work?
- Number of visits required to apply
- State outreach - Does the state engage in any outreach activities?
I can imagine that if your state makes it a real pain in the butt to apply for food stamps, you might just give up. Especially if you wouldn't receive very much in benefits anyway. Maybe you'd make that first trip to apply but if subsequent visits were required, they want your fingerprint, and the application's long, maybe you don't bother. Or maybe you bother the first time, but three months later when they want you to re-certify, it's just not worth the hassle.
The USDA crunched the numbers to see if the make-up of the population accounted for the differences in participation rates (it did some, but not too significantly), or if different state policies explained the discrepancies. The answer? Well, they couldn't find any statistically significant difference in participation rates based on the policies.
However, they also say that they doubt that the variation in participation rates is totally random. And it's hard to believe that a state that makes its application process difficult and obnoxious wouldn't have any effect on its participation rate.
The USDA suspects that their inability to account for differences in participation may be due to lack of sufficient data or overly imprecise data, or perhaps similar policies are implemented differently, making statistical comparisons between them impossible. (For example, if two states had an identical policy but implemented it differently. When the USDA does its number crunching these states would be lumped into the same category but in reality food stamp applicants in either state would have very different experiences.) Another possibility is that "aggregate measures may mask meaningful local variations." Last, perhaps state procedures - how the states actually do what they do - are more important than state policies.
I'm glad the USDA is looking into this, and I hope they can find an answer that explains why 70% of those eligible for food stamps in San Diego do not receive them.
Participation Rate (%) by State (2003)
South Carolina 65.9
West Virginia 64.9
North Dakota 57.8
South Dakota 54.3
New Mexico 53.0
Rhode Island 51.9
New York 50.2
New Hampshire 49.7
New Jersey 48.7
North Carolina 45.4