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Program Gives Cash for Coupons

County program lets food-stamp recipients purchase goods where they please. SAN DIEGO MODEL

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SAN Diego County, one of the first to pioneer ``workfare'' for welfare recipients, is now trying another reform that enthusiasts say could become a national model but critics say has flaws. The idea: Give food-stamp recipients cash instead of coupons.

Proponents believe it will save the government money, boost the self-esteem of the poor, and reduce fraud. But skeptics worry that by giving out cash instead of coupons some of it will be spent on items other than food.

One who likes the idea is Diane Brancaccio. A single parent and mother of two, she used to go to the corner convenience store and see Wonder bread on sale for 49 cents or see chili marked down at the local K-mart.

But she rarely bought the items because the stores did not accept food stamps. Now, with cash instead of coupons, she can shop anywhere she wants.

``I still use the money for food,'' she says. ``I can just get it without being rejected.''

The new policy, an expansion of an earlier pilot project, got under way in September when the county started sending all 46,000 households in the area that receive food stamps checks instead of coupons.

Officials anticipate the move will save $600,000 in administrative costs at the state, county, and federal levels between now and next July. Most of that will come in reduced printing and handling charges. Mailing the bulky coupon books alone was a big expense. The county will also close stamp storage facilities and cancel armored transport service.

Although this represents only a fraction of the county's $67 million annual food-stamp budget, officials contend that any savings in an era when welfare costs are rising and government revenues shrinking is significant.

Administrators also expect to reduce certain kinds of fraud. Some food stamps that were sent out were lost or stolen. A few recipients would sell the coupons for cash. While little could be done to stop this, with a check, they can cancel payment.

A chief reason for the move, though, was to alleviate the stigma that many welfare recipients feel as they fumble through coupon books in the grocery store while customers look on.

``It can be very humiliating,'' says Richard Jacobsen, director of the county Department of Social Services.

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