BALTIMORE - A heart attack knocked Lorraine Smith out of work in June, making her more dependent than ever on food stamps. But the benefits are fast becoming more trouble than they are worth.
Meager allowances - Smith was getting just $35 in stamps per month - plus state regulations intended to cut down on fraud and errors are among the reasons the program's enrollment has declined by one-third since 1996, say hunger relief groups America's Second Harvest and Food Research and Action Center.
Slightly more than 17 million people were on food stamps nationwide in May, the latest month for which data are available, compared with 17.9 million in May 1999 and 25.5 million in May 1996. Seven states, led by Delaware, Texas and Maryland, have seen caseloads drop by more than 40 percent.
The decline is due partly to the booming economy and a 1996 ban on benefits to immigrants, but federal officials say many poor people don't know they are eligible for the stamps or left the program because of bureaucratic red tape. The government estimates that 37 percent of people eligible for food stamps aren't getting them.
''We need to do as much as we can at the federal and state levels to ensure that working families get the easy access to nutritional assistance that they need,'' said Andy Solomon, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department, which administers the program.
USDA analysts say the good economy accounts for 28 percent to 35 percent of the decrease in participation since 1996. Some 935,000 legal immigrants, less than 5 percent of the 1996 caseload, lost their food stamp eligibility under a federal welfare system overhaul that year. Congress later restored benefits to 250,000 elderly, disabled and minor immigrants.
Meanwhile, food banks report demand is as strong as ever, and the government estimates that 10 million families, or about one in 10 U.S. households, don't get enough to eat.
Smith recently was told her stamps were about to be eliminated because she hadn't gone to the local welfare office to have her benefits recalculated, a step Maryland requires of food stamp recipients every four months.
''I have no income, no nothing right now. On top of that I have a special diet,'' Smith said as she waited this summer in a church food pantry for a bag of free groceries.
State officials say they have been forced to expand their applications and recalculate benefits more often to prevent payment errors and satisfy USDA auditors. Error rates last year ran as high as 17.6 percent in Michigan. Twenty-two other states had rates over 10 percent. Maryland's was 13.6 percent.
''On one hand, it's a topdown overregulated program focused on correct benefit delivery. On the other hand, it tries to be an accessible customer-oriented delivery program. Neither the Congress nor the Department of Agriculture has determined what it wants it to be,'' said Richard Larson, a Maryland Department of Human Resources policy director.
More than half the states and the District of Columbia have applications of 10 to 36 pages long, demanding information about everything from burial plots to income from blood donations, and nearly all require a 12th-grade reading level, says a study by America's Second Harvest.
North Carolina is the only state with an application requiring only a fifth-grade education.
Larson also said benefits are so meager, as low as $10, that some people don't bother. The average benefit is about $70 per month.
Smith, a 45-year-old grandmother, said she spent most of her $35 in food stamps in one shopping trip, spending $33 for fish, beef, liver, oil, flour and fruit.
''You used to be able to into a store and buy anything you wanted without going over the limit,'' she said.
The Clinton administration has relaxed eligibility rules over the past year and initiated a public education campaign to encourage poor people to sign up. The administration has asked Congress for $10 million for more outreach efforts.
USDA officials also held public meetings in seven cities this summer to find out what it could do to increase enrollments. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman urged the nation's governors to identify poor people who are eligible for food stamps but not getting them.
States could help by reducing paperwork and keeping offices open longer hours, advocacy groups say.
''There does tend to be a feeling on the part of state administrators that the most important thing to get right is the payment accuracy,'' said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center.
On the Net: USDA's Food and Nutrition Service: http://www.fns.usda.gov/fns
Food Research and Action Center: http://www.frac.org
America's Second Harvest: http://www.secondharvest.org