With food stamp loss, emigres in Bay Area worry about hunger

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WASHINGTON — Yevgeniya Kaster was bracing for the worst.

Time was running out on her only sources of income: $484 a month in Supplemental Security Income and $57 a month in food stamps.

As of today, the welfare reform laws enacted a year ago were to end all federal assistance for the 75-year-old Ukrainian immigrant who lives alone in Chicago.

But like many Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Kaster, who arrived in 1992, refused to believe the government would stop the aid.

In the end, she was mostly right.

The balanced-budget agreement passed earlier this month only slightly altered the welfare reform law, sparing the cash assistance for immigrants such as Kaster who were already receiving SSI when the welfare law was adopted.

But she, like all legal immigrants who have not become U.S. citizens, can no longer collect food stamps beginning today, the first anniversary of welfare reform.

Losing "food stamps will cut into my budget," Kaster said in an interview through an interpreter. But, she added, "at least I'll be able to pay my rent."

Across the United States, today is the day immigrants have come to dread. It is the day welfare reform — which for more than a year was vigorously debated, enacted and later altered — finally hits.

Last-minute changes in the law spared many from losing all federal assistance. But people such as Kaster face an uncertain future as they lose more than 10 percent of their income.

Here in the Bay Area, the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services has started handing out food vouchers to legal immigrants losing food stamps. The vouchers can be traded for groceries at local supermarkets.

"We're seeing more people expressing concern about being able to eat," said Anita Friedman, executive director of JFCS. "They're scared. If their entire monthly income is $300 or $400, food stamps is the difference between having enough food to eat and not."

Several hundred Bay Area immigrants will be affected by the loss of benefits, Friedman estimated.

During the past year, Jewish social service agencies joined a major lobbying effort aimed at mitigating cuts that would harm Jewish immigrants and others.

"I think we were successful in staving off what would have been a real humanitarian disaster," Friedman said. "That shouldn't obscure the fact that there are still many features of the new law which are now starting to have very detrimental effects on our clients and on the community."

One still-unknown fallout from the law could severely affect housing for many elderly immigrants.

Jewish social service agencies in areas with large immigrant populations had expected a catastrophe as the deadline neared and thousands of elderly immigrants would lose their only source of income.

But the balanced budget agreement eased some of the sting.

"Essentially I see a lot of this as a tremendous reprieve from what we had been expecting," said Tova Klein, program director of the Kensington Program in Brooklyn, one of the self-help community service programs sponsored by the UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York.

"I'm not hysterical anymore. We were completely crazed. It was undoable."

But the relief is coupled with deep concern for those who lose the assistance, including those who came after the bill was signed — as well as those who come in the future.

"Tragedies will accumulate one by one," said Gary Rubin, director of public policy at the New York Association for New Americans.

Friedman agreed.

"The stories will now start to come to the surface," she said.

Most Jewish immigrants affected by the law came to the United States as refugees, a special immigrant status for those who emigrated with a well-founded fear of persecution.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped to bring in more than 370,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union in the past 20 years.

Refugees receive eight months of government assistance after their arrival and can then apply for a range of benefits that are available to U.S. citizens.

Refugees are not affected by the new law until five years after their arrival. Some benefits continue until seven years after they arrive.

Under the new laws, if the refugees do not obtain citizenship within five years, they are barred from food stamps. After seven years, they lose SSI if they are not disabled or if they came after the welfare reform law was enacted in 1996.

For many immigrants, the full effect of the law depends on where they live.

While the federal government has ended all food stamp programs for legal immigrants, at least nine states have chosen to continue food stamps in one way or another.

In New York, for example, thousands of elderly, disabled and child immigrants will continue to receive food stamps through the state.

Nonetheless, Jewish social service agencies estimate that 5,000 Jews in New York between the ages of 18 and 60 will lose their eligibility for food stamps as of today.

The number of Jewish immigrants affected in California and nationwide is not known.

Kaster, the immigrant from Chicago, is not lucky enough to live in a state that will continue food stamps. So the Chicago Jewish community hopes to fill at least some of the void.

In addition to a food pantry that supplies food staples once a month to those in need, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago plans to open the Uptown Cafe this fall. Needy residents will be able to eat kosher meals two nights a week and on Sunday mornings, according to federation officials.

Meanwhile, although the federal government has adopted many of the new rules and regulations for implementing welfare reform, it has yet to decide how to put one potentially devastating provision into practice.

Under the law, immigrants — including refugees after their first five years in the country — must lose all "means-tested" benefits, defined as those based on income.

A behind-the-scenes battle is raging in Washington as federal agencies grapple with the question of whether to define low-income elderly housing as a means-tested benefit.

Tens of thousands of Jewish elderly immigrants live in Section 8 housing for low-income seniors.

"If Section 8 is banned, forget it," said Klein of Brooklyn. "I won't even talk about it."

Predicting such cuts could produce widespread homelessness, Klein said, "everything that was fixed will be unfixed."

For immigrants affected by all these changes, the only guarantee for continued benefits is to become U.S. citizens. So the push toward citizenship continues.

In cities across the country, including San Francisco, immigrants have applied for citizenship in record numbers.

Kaster has applied for citizenship, but because of the current backlog of applicants, the wait in Chicago is more than two years.

She is more than ready, she said.

"I want to take part in the life of this country."