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Chaos Unfolds as First Provisos Of New Welfare Law Take Effect

By Judith Havemann and William Claiborne
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The first provisions of the new federal welfare law took effect Monday, requiring states to begin denying food stamps to non-citizens in the initial phase of a process that will ultimately strip benefits from half a million immigrants.

Efforts to enforce the new law came amid delays, confusion and, in at least one state, administrative chaos, as caseworkers and others involved in the welfare bureaucracy struggled first to decipher and then to implement the required changes.

The food stamp provisions of the law, which have received far less attention than other sections of the welfare reforms, are key to the success of the entire measure. They are expected to provide half of the expected $54 billion in savings from the bill over the next six years. Cutbacks of other benefits to immigrants account for most of the rest.

States could lose millions of dollars if they fail to implement the provisions accurately and on time. The Agriculture Department imposes strict financial penalties on states that pass out food stamps to people who are actually ineligible, so accuracy is critical. But under the new law, figuring out who qualifies becomes much more complicated: Non-citizen legal immigrants can receive food stamps, for example, if they are new refugees, veterans or legal residents who have worked 10 years in the United States without receiving any federal means-tested benefits.

Sorting through these changes seemed to be proving the most difficult in California, which has 40 percent of the nation's immigrants. Officials in several California counties described their efforts to meet the new requirements as chaotic, proclaiming the level of confusion the worst mess in 25 years of social welfare reform.

California first announced last week that it would begin cutting off non-citizens, but by week's end had backed off in the face of a new federal directive suggesting their efforts may have been premature.

Early Monday, county officials began stacking new food stamp applications from non-citizens in separate piles, awaiting word from their superiors on how to handle them.

Susan Miller, assistant district manager of the Orange County, California, social services agency, said "We take the application except we don't approve any of the new applications until further training sessions. We don't have any idea of what the changes are."