IN APRIL, Kathy lost her job as a legal assistant. She dropped from a $16 an hour job to nothing. With a 12-year-old son to feed, health bills, and housing costs, Kathy (who requested that her last name not be used) was suddenly thrust into poverty. During the days, she spent hours trying to wrestle food stamps from the state's Adult and Family Services."What a trip to hell and back," she recently told the Mercury. It took more than two months and the threat of legal action to finally release $75 a month in benefits from Family Services' grip. During that time, she struggled to find food and money for groceries. Some evenings, she sent her son to neighbors so he could eat dinner. "It was humiliating," she lamented.

Kathy is in a similar situation to an estimated 100,000 Oregon residents who are eligible for food stamps, but find daunting--if not insurmountable--barriers to the government-sponsored assistance program. Unlike welfare programs which provide incomes, food stamps--which no longer resemble paper money but function like a bank debit card--are intended to give only enough to make ends meet. On average, recipients receive $75 a month. In April, a study released by US Department of Agriculture announced that Oregon is the hungriest state in the nation. One of the primary reasons for this plight, say critics, is the food stamp application process and the application itself.

"There is such a gap," explained Tina Kotek, a Policy Analyst for Oregon Food Bank, referring to the difference between the mission of the food stamp program and the number of people served. She went on to explain that the application process is "more complicated than it needs to be."

Intended only as a safety net when governmental benefits like welfare and food stamps fall short, Oregon Food Bank is an independent organization that supplies food boxes to needy families. Kotek explained that it is impossible to gauge exactly how many people in Oregon are in need, but pointed out that food stamp use has plummeted over the past two years, while traffic at Oregon Food Bank has steadily climbed, increasing 15 percent last year. This shift seems to indicate that while demand for food assistance is not waning, the ability of Family Service to deliver benefits to needy families is failing.A study, The Red Tape Divide, published three weeks ago by Second Harvest, the country's largest food bank, detailed food stamp applications in all 50 states. The study highlighted applications that are too long and complicated; Oregon's application is 16 pages in length and often takes several hours to complete.

Moreover, the Second Harvest study indicated that the questions pry deeply into the assets of the applicant. Twenty-seven states ask whether an applicant owns a burial plot. As set forward by USDA federal guidelines, to be eligible, a household cannot hold assets in excess of $2000, including any value of a car over $4,650. Critics say that these standards are overbearing and out-of-date. The allowable value of a vehicle, for example, has increased by only $150 over 20 years."What?" asked Kotek, "They have to sell their car to get help?"

The Department of Agriculture has defended their policies of sniffing around personal assets as a means to protect against fraud. But, countered Kim Thomas, a Senior Policy Advisor at Oregon Food Bank, it seems as if the application guidelines are concerned more with protecting the government's money than with helping needy applicants. States that pay benefits to unqualified applicants risk hefty fines. "The USDA penalizes only for errors like overpaying (recipients)," Thomas said, but not for underpaying them.

Responding to these concerns, the Multnomah County Family Service has begun to launch pilot programs attempting to lower these barriers. This fall, they will test-market an application shortened to four pages.