THE BLOG

Food Stamps In New York

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When under real pressure, I love to go out and eat. It's the worst thing to do for controlling weight, but I have a very unscientific belief that it's atavistic. When things went wrong for our early ancestors, they either had sex or, even better, brought down a mastodon and ate until they fell asleep -- things always look better in the morning.

That's why I don't get the city's resistance to getting federal food stamps out as fast as possible, particularly in this recession. New York City has more than 415,000 people out of work, with more on the way. This is the time to make sure that everyone who is breathing and qualified gets food stamps. It's the poor man's stimulus; it makes people feel that they have hope and it's been proven to be the fastest dollars that pour back instantly into the local economy. Give Citibank bail out money and they're still not lending to local businesses and individuals. Give people food stamps and they're at the local Ctown or bodega within hours -- buying eggs and milk. (Regretfully, no beer allowed for food stamp purchases.) Some local grocery stores depend on food stamp purchases for their entire profit margin.

To its credit, the city has given out record numbers of food stamps. In October, food stamp recipients reached an all-time high of 1.6 million, a nearly 30 percent jump in one year. But all the reports indicate, including our own survey, that hundreds of thousands more who are eligible aren't getting help. There seems to be two primary reasons.

Many don't believe they are eligible and others are inappropriately turned down by the city. Both problems can be handled. Aggressive marketing by the city, nonprofits, and the business sector could help ensure that everyone knows how and where to qualify for food stamps and, like Costco recently did, make it easy for people to use them without stigma. And the city has to stop restricting food stamp access to single adults who haven't jumped through every hoop. Given unemployment rates for black and Latino workers fast approaching 20 percent, this kind of policy is close to insanity.

Nor can this kind of restriction be justified by city and state budget constraints. Food stamps are an entirely federal entitlement. The only cost to the city is the administrative cost of the program.

The failure to embrace the most expansive effort to make sure every last person eligible is getting the benefit is a direct holdover from the Giuliani administration's belief that all benefits create dependency and should be denied whenever possible. The racist undertones of this policy -- given who is poor in New York City -- are just too obvious to ignore. This administration has done much to heal the rifts along race and class lines, but it's time to break completely with those past policies and actively get on the side of the city's working poor even if they're not white.

Pictures of the mayor at a food pantry urging New Yorkers to volunteer in the Daily News were wonderful. Additional tens of millions of dollars in food stamp supports would be even better.