Hunger games

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 97 views 

Those seeking government assistance for food are truly people who have exhausted all other resources. It remains a program for the most vulnerable among us. I have yet to meet a child who said, “When I grow up, I want to be on food stamps.”

A vote to cut SNAP spending (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka, food stamps) is a vote to send children to bed hungry – and seniors and the disabled, too, for that matter.

You see, about half of all SNAP recipients (47%) are children and another 8% are seniors. From every dollar bill spent on food, 83 cents goes to a home that includes a child, an elderly person or a disabled person. When SNAP cuts of between $16 and $20 billion are bantered about, what that really calls for is taking about 200,000 seniors and one million children off the roster. Moreover, since many schools tie their meals programs to SNAP participation, as families fall out of the program, it jeopardizes their kids’ meals at school.

Eight out of ten families receiving SNAP benefits have gross incomes at or below the federal poverty guideline. The average family in the program has a monthly gross income of only $744 – less than $200 a week. But they are working! In fact, only 19% are not currently employed. Information placed on applications is computer or caseworker verified.

Pundits against the program say SNAP is a ticket to living off the hard work of others. But 3 out of 5 of all participants live in a home with earnings or receive social security. If you are able-bodied, you can only receive benefits for three months in a three-year period. Everyone must re-apply every year.

The SNAP benefit formula is geared toward encouraging people to find work, work more hours and seek better paying positions. The maximum a family of four can receive is $668 a month, the maximum and individual can receive is $200.

Pundits want to raise the flag about fraud. Recipient accuracy is 99%. What error occurs happens internally from an incorrect assignment of benefits, with one in five of those errors being an actual underpayment. Overall, the integrity of the program is at 96.2%.  Medicare program integrity is 91.5% and Medicaid integrity is 88.6%.

In the past, some unscrupulous retailers traded cash for benefits, but nowadays such fraud is caught quickly and only one penny of every benefit dollar is lost to such trafficking. Hotlines and online reporting of fraud is available at the state and local level.

Pundits say the program has run amuck and is too large. Indeed, it’s a counter-cyclical program that lags slightly behind unemployment. It is no news that the 2008 recession shook many out of the middle class and hit hardest the baby boomers, minorities, and under educated. Food stamps were created out of the same post-depression situation. Left to work itself out, a downturn in participation is expected to start in 2015.

Pundits say the program has grown too fast. Yes, sadly it has. Gone is the food stamp stigma as EBT cards modernized the process. The application process has been streamlined. Consequently, participation rates of eligible recipients have soared. In 2000, roughly 17 million out of an eligible 30 million people used SNAP (57% participation rate). By 2005, 24.5 million out of 38 million (65%) participated. Today, we have a participation rate of roughly 75% with 47 million people enrolled.

Pundits say the cuts will weed out those who truly didn’t need assistance. Anyone making more than 130% of the federal poverty guidelines simply is simply denied. That means a family of four cannot have a gross income of more than $28,665 and a single dad raising one child who makes $19,000 a year will not qualify. Those with cash assets above $2,000 ($3,250 for households that include a senior or disabled member) don’t qualify. It’s odd that there is a cry to get people off of SNAP but they cannot legitimately save up to do it.

Pundits say the program allows people to drive around in SUV’s. Yes, it does. Each household is permitted a vehicle. The program also allows a vehicle to be used to transport a disabled person or to be used for self-employment or generating income. For anyone else in the household with a car or truck, any of its value over $4,650 will be counted as an asset. There is room to tighten the business vehicle exemption but I recognize its intent is to encourage foster income growth and get the family off SNAP.

Pundits say SNAP users buy steak and lobster. Yes, they can. The program allows food choice, but only food can be purchased. No beer, cigarettes or tattoos. No items for home or bath. Benefits are deposited into the EBT account once a month and it is possible to see someone purchasing their month’s food and perhaps making some bad decisions. Keep in mind, many recipients do not have transportation and will take advantage of a free ride to a store. Better stewardship is warranted. The truth is, SNAP users tend to purchase more calorie-dense and highly-processed foods. Several programs, namely “Shopping Matters” and “Cooking Matters,” are instilling good purchasing and home habits.

Pundits say the program is feeding illegal immigrants. A verified social security number is required for everyone in a household. Proof of address, photo ID, and proof of income is also required. U.S. citizens comprise 96% of all participants with the remainder being naturalized citizens or legally documented immigrants.

Pundits say the program is top heavy with bureaucracy and a state bonus program is wasteful. Administrative expenses for the program run about 4.5% of total funding, which is comparatively low. Over 95% of what is budgeted goes into food purchases. The USDA sets aside a fraction of 1% of its budget as an incentive for states to improve their program integrity. They want states to encourage states to adopt the best practices other states have found useful in increasing their accuracy ratings. The bonus is one reason for SNAP receiving its solid A rating from the Government Account Office (GAO).

Pundits say the program does not exempt winners of large lottery prizes. Really, pundits? Check out that cash asset restriction again.

We have about 693,500 Arkansans participating in SNAP and the support they receive amounts to $734.6 million. In Crawford and Sebastian counties, more than 45,600 people in 17,700 homes receive $47.2 million in benefits. The benefit works out to about $222.67 a month per family.

Arkansas’ participation rate is rather low when compared to other states. We hover around 70%. Arkansans are proud people and the pride gets in the way. But we are in a state where 1-in-6 adults, 1-in-3 children and 1-in-3 seniors are food insecure. That should set a legislative priority. It would serve us all to know our state legislators are working to get everyone who qualifies their benefits.

Stronger SNAP outreach in our state offers two advantages. Nutrition can help end generational poverty. It has been aptly demonstrated that children raised in poverty compared to children raised just over the poverty line complete two fewer years of school, are in three times poorer health and earn half the wages of their counterparts. Boys raised in poverty are twice as likely to get arrested and girls raised in poverty are five times more likely to have a child out of wedlock.

The second advantage is simply the economic effect of this federal aid to our state. SNAP means landlords, utilities, doctors and hospitals get paid and quickie marts and dollar stores do extra business, and they in turn, boost our economy as a result. Given a determined multiplier effect of 1.79, SNAP is a $1.3 billion boost to the Arkansas economy. At full participation, that realization is closer to $2 billion.