Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Waste, fraud, and abuse in the food stamp program? Halfway through the SNAP Challenge, Ken M goes searching for the truth - Part 2
In my post yesterday I kind of ripped the GOP a new one for their "proof" that cutting funding for food stamps will save the nation from evil and destruction. (Don't get me started again.) In all fairness, the Democratic-controlled Senate also passed $4 billion in cuts to SNAP in their version of the Farm Bill. Most of those cuts were to the heat and eat program. But at least President Obama has finally spoken out against the House's planned $20 billion in food stamp cuts.
Here's another report on fraud and abuse in the SNAP program by the nonpartisan government body charged with assessing how well government is spending your tax dollars.
What is striking about this report is the clear decline in food stamp abuse it charts. Down to 1%. Given how much mud is being slung at the SNAP/food stamp program, and government in general, I was expecting the opposite. It points to a downward economy as a primary reason for the increase in food stamp recipients and it mostly points the finger at government error and private sector business engaging in illegal practices as the reason for any remaining abuse in the system.
How could government error be part of the problem? I am not a rocket scientist but I have spent a number of years in the private sector. If orders start flying in you better bring in more staff and resources or you can't meet demand. It's that simple. Yet our current state government administration has taken the opposite position by cutting staff. In Allegheny County the number of cases per caseworker exceeds 1,000 – one person responsible for helping a thousand individuals. Or maybe it's 1,200. The exact number is hard to pin down because of a very complex matrix for determining caseloads. Because what you want when the job at hand is helping people is a very complex bureaucracy for them to wade through. (*more sarcasm*)
This isn't sitting right with me. I'm going to eat a fake cheese sandwich, with tomatoes.
Monday, June 17, 2013
Waste, fraud, and abuse in the food stamp program? Halfway through the SNAP Challenge, Ken M goes searching for the truth - Part 1
Outside the office I bump into the usual locals. I start bragging about the challenge, being on only $6 dollars a day for food. "I couldn't live off that" they squeak. As usual, the conversation quickly moves to everyone's opinion on people cheating the food stamp system. I really can't trust common perception because I know if I used an EBT card during my shopping trip and people saw me stuffing my sack to the point I could hardly lift it, this might create a certain misperception about the amount of food you can get on food stamps. But this is all superficial. I need some data on the big picture, some facts on how such supposedly massive abuse of the SNAP benefits program can occur.
I consulted a report issued by the GOP: Reeling in Government Waste, Fraud, and Abuse—Replacing Dangerous Defense Cuts with Common Sense Spending Reductions.
Read it. Without realizing they're doing so, this GOP report (the seeming talking points bible for all current anti-SNAP talk) actually points the finger at the private sector marketplace - businesses that profit in trafficking EBT transactions. All food stamp funds are loaded onto an EBT card and can only be used for food purchases. Unless a merchant is fudging the transactions in the back office, the consumer is unable to use their card on anything but food. It's not news that the private sector can go astray, especially when it comes to tapping the public till. Look what happened in the housing, mortgage, banking, credit, and finance industries.
If this waste, fraud, and abuse is the widespread problem they allege, what's needed, then, is more government oversight, not cuts in funding to help hungry people get food on the table. And really - you mean to tell me there's no waste, fraud, and abuse among defense contractors taking government funds? Maybe related to, oh I don't know, their procurement process, salary compensation, or tax filing - to the tune of billions of dollars?! Yet you don't see the GOP tripping over themselves to cut defense spending.
The GOP report also points the finger at a lottery winner and two criminals in Detroit. Yes, these three individuals were egregiously defrauding the SNAP program. And because of that they were caught. But yes, because these three shysters tried to scam food stamps we should drastically cut food stamp funding for the millions of people who really need it. (*sarcasm*)
The GOP anti-food stamp talking points also cast a scornful eye on the "heat and eat" initiative. This was a technical fix designed to help states expand food stamp eligibility to those who weren't qualifying for sufficient benefits because they couldn't demonstrate they had utility payments (because their utilities were included in their rent). Ironically, "heat and eat" works exactly as the GOP describes it; they just view making sure people get the food stamps they're entitled to as "fraud."
The same goes for their attacks on "categorical eligibilty," which allows states to eliminate federal asset tests and raise the income threshold for SNAP i.e. removes barriers that keep people who need it from getting food stamps. Cat el also, by drawing on info from other government programs that help low-income families, reduces paperwork and reduces government administration costs. Funny, I thought increasing government efficiency was something the GOP would be all for.
Friday, June 14, 2013
Here are my prep stats:
What I bought:
Even with my excel spreadsheets and iPhone I had some miscalculations but ended up with $1.34 left over. I was pleased with my take. It did require some preparation. I used my high-speed internet connection to race around the world trying to find the correct balance of nutrition for the price. I even made a trip in my car to get an idea of prices. I know this might be cheating since most people don't price out their food and then come back a couple of days later to buy it but I am a follower of Captain Kirk's philosophy (you know what I mean)*.
For my first night, I had a British dinner: eggs, boiled potatoes, baked beans and slices of tomatoes. Very plain. Sorry Brits.
*For those who don't know Capt. Kirk's guiding philosophy, it is as follows:
Never get into a situation you can't win.
Editor's Note: We realize it is now the last scheduled day of the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge and all of Ken's posts thus far are about preparing for the challenge rather than actually taking it. It seems figuring out how to make do with less is an undertaking in and of itself, requiring ample research and planning to mitigate the hardship.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
So I'm standing there waiting for this bus, my back, my knee, my hip are all hurting. I live with chronic pain since the motorcycle accident and take great care not to end up back in the hospital. One wrong move with this sack of goods – my food for the week — could change my life forever.
Now more people are showing up at the bus stop. There's no way I can beat them to the bus to get a seat. I didn't bring my glasses so I can't even see what bus is coming.
It finally arrives and I get a seat. People are jumping on and off the bus with their two bags in hand, proper amount of content in each bag, looking at me like I'm some kind of a rookie. I'm just hoping all my stuff doesn't spill out on this dirty floor.
I get off at Carson and Smithfield to wait for my next bus. Taking the Incline and walking was out of the question. I'm not a religious man but I did take a moment here to kneel down and thank God it wasn't raining or snowing or 20° outside.
A minute seemed like an hour. But it finally came and I got a seat in the front leaving my sack of goods in the middle of the aisle for people to trip over. Then I realized: this bus is going to blow by my street leaving me two extra blocks from my home unless we catch a light and the driver has the mercy to let me off. As luck would have it we got a red light, I jumped up and made my request. "Please let me off."
Without comment the doors opened and I made my getaway. I carried the groceries the final block, neighbors staring at me as I inched my way home. Inside I went straight for the frig with the perishables, grabbed two aspirins for pain and laid down, wondering if I caused any damage to my back.
Then my eyes popped wide open. I have to make the trip again tomorrow, to get everything else on my list.
Monday, June 10, 2013
Armed with a spreadsheet and pen I walked along Grandview Avenue dogging tourist questions and counting skyscrapers. The ride down the Mount was great - I paid 3.50 for the ride and two transfers. I crossed the street to the bus stop and carefully eyed up my fellow travelers. All seemed well.
I walked along Carson St. looking at the shops and people spending more money on lunch than I could for the whole week. Inside the store, I pulled out my spreadsheet and iPhone calculator. It could not have gone better: I was getting my items and saving .29 cents here and there. I loaded up my cart and headed for checkout.
I took my items out of the cart and the cashier put them back in. I wheeled my cart to the table and started to pack my bag. This stuff ain’t fitting in my bag. I turned to the cashier for help. He was already inpatient with me because I asked for my quarter back that was stuck in the cart. I interrupted the line anyway. “I need a bag...” “There over on the shelf “ he said. I went to the shelf and see the bags aren't free - the only one that would work costs $1.25.
I carefully packed the bag I brought. It was so heavy I thought for sure the straps were going to break. I carried the bag in one hand and two loaves of bread in the other. I made it about a half a block and had to stop. I made it another 30 feet and had to stop. I quickly became entertainment for the people eating lunch outside. I gave them the stink eye.
I made it to the first bus stop and that was it. My stuff was falling out on the sidewalk. People started to inch away from me. I stepped on any ants that got too close to my food.
Then a thought crossed my mind: It's over 80 degrees out and the bus may be a long time coming. What if everything spoils?! I'd be ruined. No milk, chicken, or eggs for the rest of the week. I'd be living on carbs and canned goods and even less calories. I move the bag into the shade.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
This past November, Just Harvest observed a bittersweet milestone. We completed our 5,000th food stamp application since our contract with the Department of Public Welfare began in 2007, illustrating the continuing need as more and more county residents turn to public assistance in the throes of the stagnating economy.
Just Harvest’s contract with the Department of Public Welfare charges us to complete 500 applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known - but still referred to around our office - as food stamps) per year; for the past two years, we have completed over three times that amount. Over 165,000 people in Allegheny County participate in the food stamp program, and recent figures from the USDA place nationwide participation at nearly 46.5 million.
Co-Director Ken Regal told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “It’s a sad day when we ‘celebrate’ Just Harvest’s 5,000th food stamp application. This number sends a powerful message to those who are cutting budgets, stereotyping poor people, and putting new bureaucratic barriers in the way of people who are just trying to keep food on the table.”
So how did we (and how do we continue to) do it?
Just Harvest's food stamp specialists respond to 40-plus inquiries per week that we receive from people in need. Once a potential client contacts us, a specialist conducts a preliminary screening right over the phone to evaluate whether the household is likely to be eligible, and if so, calculates a rough estimate of the benefits they might receive. We ask questions about income, family size, and some key expenses like rent and utility payments to help us make an estimate.
The client may then apply over the phone with the help of the specialist, who submits the application via the Department of Public Welfare’s COMPASS website. Once the initial online application is submitted, our specialist creates an informational packet for the client, including documents that must be signed and returned to DPW, an explanation of how DPW works, and what the next steps are in the process – typically a phone interview with a caseworker.
In order to ensure that the process is moving along, we keep tabs on open cases through a series of follow-up calls with the client at 10-, 20- and 30-day intervals. The aim of the calls is to both troubleshoot along the way and to make sure that the client has submitted all their documents, has completed a DPW interview, and – after 30 days – to verify whether he or she has received a determination from DPW. In case of problems, we work with clients on a case-by-case basis to first help them to resolve the issue, stepping in with DPW staff when necessary.
Sometimes – through no fault of the client’s – it can be a challenge to get from start to finish, but our services have earned us solidly positive customer satisfaction reviews. “Most people are very pleased at how easy we make the process,” says former Food Stamp Specialist (now Volunteer Coordinator) Ann Sanders. “We know what questions to ask that are specific to the program, and can help them to get through an otherwise cumbersome and long application.”
* (This blog post was originally a newsletter article that went unused in our last issue - we've published it here since it's still interesting news!)
Friday, April 13, 2012
Just Harvest’s Child Nutrition Advocate Shauna Ponton has been with us for 11 years, during which she’s honed her commitment to empowering people to stand up to injustice. One way she does this is by educating low-income families on food programs available to them and their children. “I want to make a difference in someone’s life - every day,” she says. “That’s my personal ‘mission statement.'”
Shauna works daily to get the word out about various federally funded programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC - a program that provides supplemental food vouchers for new mothers and children ages birth to 5), after-school programs and summer food programs. Ensuring that eligible families and children in need have both the awareness of and access to these programs is one of her prime responsibilities.
Currently, she is organizing a statewide advocacy effort to implement a one-year recertification option for WIC. By requiring fewer visits to the WIC office, opting into the one-year recertification (as opposed to the current program that requires parents to visit the WIC office for recertification every 6 months) would make continued program participation less burdensome on working parents.
Child nutrition programs that are both functional and easily accessible go a long way toward helping low-income families to save money: Money that can be used for gas in the car, households expenses, or paying utility bills.
That’s why another big part of her job is to defend these programs against budget cuts. It is not too often that programs to feed children face huge cuts, but the threat is always looming (as it did last year, when Congress was mulling large reductions to WIC funding).
The stakes of childhood hunger are high – and the effects of poor nutrition are devastating to growing children. Poor concentration and hunger pangs interfere with learning both in the short and long term, and children of low-income families can also face obesity-related health issues that result from eating unhealthy foods (which unfortunately happen to be the cheapest, if not the only, available foods in some neighborhoods).
And what about maintaining school feeding programs when the schools themselves are perpetually facing budget cuts? Legislators need to open their eyes to the facts, she explained. “They have to understand what it takes to feed a kid a healthy meal in school. And what it takes to feed a kid breakfast and lunch in the summer months.” After that understanding is reached, legislators need to put the money where the programs are. And, it’s their duty to make sure those programs continue to work. She faces an additional challenge in sometimes having to educate legislators about the policies they implement. “Their view is far removed from real life,” she says. “They look at the dollars and cents, and end up being penny wise but pound foolish.”
To help combat these issues during the summer months, Shauna advocates for wider implementation of the Summer Food Service Program. This federally funded program serves breakfast, lunches and snacks to children in areas where 50 percent or more of the children receive free or reduced-price school meals.
With all the talk of nutrition standards in schools these days, it’s easy to mistakenly assume that Shauna personally educates families and children on how to eat healthy – but that isn’t the case. The programs are already designed to meet USDA guidelines for nutritional value. Shauna’s main focus is on getting the programs into the communities, and making sure that they remain robust enough to meet growing need.
If you’re interested in supporting the summer food program as a volunteer or as a site coordinator, contact Shauna at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please write “Summer Food Program” in subject line.