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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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