Sunday, December 21, 2014

Stamped Out

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Arizonans feel the SNAP of recent federal nutrition assistance cuts.

Connie McAfee has trained herself to eat only one meal a day. It’s usually dinner, which she eats at about 7 p.m. so she’ll still feel full when she goes to bed at 9 p.m.

“I wait a couple hours before I go to sleep. Then I know I won’t have to worry about eating again later. You shouldn’t have to ration food like that. This sandwich here would last me two days,” McAfee says, pointing to the plain breakfast sandwich – no cheese or mayo because she’s unaccustomed to their richness – she ordered during our interview at Denny’s.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, McAfee is one of roughly 1.1 million Arizonans (17 percent of the state’s population) directly affected by last fall’s cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name for the safety-net program still commonly known as food stamps. SNAP received a temporary funding boost from the 2009 Recovery Act, but the stimulus package ended on Nov. 1, 2013. As of press time, further cuts are being debated as Congress negotiates a final Farm Bill and reauthorizes SNAP.

Hunger is a critical issue in the United States. In 2012, 48.9 million, or one in six, Americans lived in food-insecure homes, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Arizona’s rates are higher than the national average: According to Feeding America’s 2011 Meal Gap study, more than one in five Arizonans live in poverty and food-insecurity. One in four children and one in seven seniors are under that umbrella.

Food stamp critics say the system’s original purpose as a temporary bridge through difficult financial times has been corrupted by abuse, fraud, over-dependence and bloated government spending. Fraud is a linchpin for welfare reformers, who cite a 2013 inspector general audit saying $222 million a year could be saved nationally by weeding out fraud through eligibility requirements (employment or proof of seeking employment for able-bodied adults, for example) and cracking down on EBT card (the benefits’ delivery system, replacing the literal food stamps of yore) replacements and SNAP trafficking. Some enrollees exchange SNAP benefits for restricted items like alcohol, tobacco, drugs or even cash, according to a Fox News Online report. The report also quoted House Speaker John Boehner saying the House’s Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity bill “roots out waste, fraud and abuse, encourages able-bodied adults to find work and saves taxpayers more than $39 billion.” Even McAfee admits that “there are a lot of people out there taking advantage.”

But those who use the system responsibly are undoubtedly hurt by the cuts. In the fiscal year 2012, the average SNAP household received about $278 a month, or roughly $1.48 per meal, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). According to CBPP estimates, a single-parent family of three now receives $29 less a month. That totals $319, or about 16 meals, according to the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan” calculations for November 2013 through September 2014. This means that, sans the Recovery Act’s funds infusion, SNAP benefits for this year will average less than $1.40 per person per meal.

McAfee says she has seen a $20 reduction in her monthly SNAP benefits, as well as a $10 decrease from rescinded back pay she won after a dispute with the Arizona Department of Economic Services, the state agency that administers SNAP. She is working to win back that money because “$30 is a lot of food,” McAfee says. She uses her assistance to buy nutritional staples – and unhealthy fillers.

“I buy meats only – no canned foods, no vegetables. I can come by a can of vegetables if I need to in a food box. Most typically, I buy meats, coffee, flour, sugar,” McAfee says. “I drink a lot of soda over food because it’s cheaper to have a 12-pack of soda in the fridge. I rely on soda because it’s cheap, it makes you feel fuller and you don’t get an appetite. I can afford two cans a day to keep me full so that I only eat meals at night.”

BENEFICIARIES AND BENEFACTORS
The majority of SNAP beneficiaries are children, seniors and the disabled, says Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks.

“There is this misconception that somehow there’s a large number of folks that take advantage of the SNAP program and that’s just not true,” Rodgers says, addressing the widespread perception of welfare fraud and government leeching in regard to public assistance programs in general and nutrition assistance in particular.

“SNAP is definitely a situational support that helps to further families’ way out of poverty,” Rodgers says. “They use it at the time they need it, it helps them to escape long-term poverty and it helps them to grow up to be healthy and reduces their need to rely on safety-net programs as adults.”

The proof is in the data, Rodgers says, with children making up half of the people who receive SNAP benefits and the elderly or disabled making up another 18 percent of recipients. “And a large number [of SNAP recipients] who don’t meet either of those criteria are working,” she says.

Cynthia Zwick, president of the Arizona Community Action Association, an advocacy and education organization that helps SNAP recipients apply for benefits and puts them in touch with other helpful agencies and organizations, agrees that fraud is rare. “It’s not the guy in California who’s buying lobster and choosing to be a surfer,” Zwick says, referencing Jason Greenslate, the much-ballyhooed public-assistance recipient who bragged to Fox News in August 2013 about evading work and using his SNAP benefits to purchase sushi and lobster. His story was part of two segments about America’s “food stamp binge” and has been used by champions of the SNAP cuts as an example of the program’s abuse and waste of taxpayer dollars.

“In many of the families, parents are working more than one job but still need assistance,” Zwick says. “The program is meant to address a temporary need, but unfortunately that need arose for too many people.”

McAfee both conforms to and breaks the mold of the stereotypical welfare recipient. After being born into a family that relied on assistance and living an unstable, often homeless childhood, she worked her way out of homelessness by juggling jobs and scrimping. Now, at 48, the cervical cancer survivor is on disability and unable to work due to fibromyalgia and nerve damage she sustained as a result of domestic violence in her first marriage. She’s been disheartened by recent setbacks in her aid and recovery, including the SNAP cuts.

“I’ve tried all my life to make it and now they’re just taking everything that I’ve built up away. I go to these appointments and I sit for four, five, six hours to get the assistance and then they take it away from me,” McAfee says. “Then they complain about how many people are on assistance the following year. Why do you think that is? Because of what you took from them the year before. I’ve worked my rear end off,” she says tearfully.

John Bowen, a legislative specialist for the Division of Benefits and Medical Eligibility at the Arizona Department of Economic Services, says stories like McAfee’s are common and what the program is intended to address.

“The elderly and the disabled, the people that this program works so well for, are not a problem. These are individuals who are playing by the rules, but their circumstances are such that their economic circumstances are not going to change much and it’s not through any fault of their own,” Bowen says. He’s been with DES for 23 years and spent his first eight years there as an eligibility interviewer, screening applicants like McAfee for acceptance for SNAP.

“One of the stereotypes that people often conjure up about individuals or families on public assistance is that they’re lazy or they’d rather be collecting benefits than working, but that was not my experience,” Bowen says. “My experience was that there’s a lot of families who are very hardworking, where one or both of the parents are employed, it’s just that a lot of the jobs they’re employed at are low-wage jobs. For those individuals and those families, SNAP... supplements the family’s ability to provide food for the family.”

Low-wage jobs are prevalent in this population, and Zwick says Arizona’s minimum wage of $7.90 an hour (raised in January from $7.80), is not enough to keep individuals, let alone families, above the poverty line. After paying for shelter and transportation to get to work, many individuals and families have little to no money left in their budgets for food.

Zwick and her colleagues at ACAA designed and have participated in the “SNAP Experience” for the past three years, simulating their own reliance on the SNAP benefit allotment for one week to “raise awareness about the difficult decisions families face when they’re trying to make ends meet and really don’t have enough resources to provide food for their families,” Zwick says. Not surprisingly, it was difficult.

“I ended up eating a lot of peanut butter and bread,” Zwick says. She did buy a chicken, which she stretched through the week. SNAP benefits allow the purchase of food and food products from a federally authorized retailer, seeds and plants to grow food and low-cost or reduced-price meals at restaurants authorized by the Food and Nutrition Service as Communal Dining Facilities. SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase non-food items (pet foods, paper products, toiletries, household supplies and grooming items), alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, medication and hot foods “ready for immediate consumption” – no restaurant or fast-food meals.

Zwick learned “how stressful it is to pay that close attention and really worry about spending a couple of dollars a meal. It’s pretty unrealistic. Even for families who are used to making those decisions, benefits don’t last the whole month.”

McAfee, who shared photographs of her sparse pantry and fridge, knows that challenge all too well.

STRAINING “SOCIAL SAFETY NETWORK”
Proponents of welfare reform and further cuts to SNAP emphasize the need for independence from government assistance programs and the role of community organizations like churches, charities, shelters and food banks to help assistance recipients make that transition. They exist to fill the gap between income and need, they say.

“The social safety net in Arizona is…there’s a lot of cooperation,” Bowen of the DES says of the myriad governmental, community, charitable and religious organizations in the state. “We work with mutual clients and I think that there’s been a real effort on the part of not only the Department of Economic Security, but also all the other agencies that comprise the social safety network in Arizona to have more collaboration to help the clients because the need has been so great. That’s something that’s been at the forefront of the DES director’s office.”

Nicole Peña, director of communications for the Christian-based Phoenix Rescue Mission, is happy to be part of that network and part of a solution to the hunger and homelessness problem in Arizona. The mission serves as a multipurpose aid for those in need – soup kitchen, homeless shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, domestic violence shelter and food-box-distributor.

“I feel like organizations in Arizona have done a good job of trying to work and fill that gap where the greatest need is. We’re trying to figure out how to best serve families that don’t have transportation coming every day. You can probably find transportation to get you to a grocery store once a week, but to come every day to a mission and to get food to eat – that’s very difficult,” Peña says. The mission is reforming its food-box program to better identify and serve those in need, particularly as that need has grown as a result of the SNAP cuts.

“How can we have a program that helps people with their food needs now, but that we can also help them in other ways so that maybe they won’t have to rely on the benefits?” Peña says she and her team ask themselves. “We prepared ourselves for this cut.”

Rodgers of the Association of Arizona Food Banks says that food banks have been able to shoulder a sizeable chunk of the burden but don’t have the resources to completely take over from where SNAP benefits end. She and her cohorts have been working with legislators and community organizations to press the need for the program to continue without further cuts.

“We’re trying to work with everyone involved to ensure that we continue to invest in the program and try to keep SNAP cuts to a minimum,” Rodgers says. “We don’t want to see a cut like that again. We can’t take it, the economy can’t take it, food banks can’t take it. I don’t think we want any thought out there that food banks would be able to make up the difference, because we just can’t.” Bowen of the DES says that, before the November cuts, the trend had been marginal increases in benefits each year.

Rodgers says that, rather than being a taxpayer drain, SNAP is beneficial for the economy and is one of the government’s most cost-effective welfare programs, a claim corroborated by SNAP’s Congressional Budget Office Rating.

“[It’s] really about what that means for the economy. [The cuts] means that less money, about $10-$12 million less each month, this year is not being expended at grocery stores and Walmarts and the large food retail stores. If that money is not being infused in grocery stores, that’s a pretty significant cut for them,” Rodgers says. “For every $1 invested in SNAP, it generates $1.70 in economic activity. That’s money going back into grocery stores and helping put more people in the workforce, too. It definitely has far-reaching investments.”

SNAP JUDGMENTS
As far as improving SNAP and its administration locally, Zwick and Rodgers have similar proposals. Both feel that Arizona’s requirement of finger imaging as part of the SNAP application is unnecessary and costly – $400,000 to $500,000 a year, Rodgers says – since instances of fraud are less than 1 percent thanks to existing screening technology. In fact, Rodgers says that in 2012, only 46 duplicate entries – out of the 1.1 million SNAP beneficiaries – were discovered, including clerical errors. Arizona is the only state that still requires finger imaging, though others have used it in the past.

Zwick says deeper issues need to be addressed to eliminate the symptoms causing the diseases of hunger and poverty. “More globally, we need to educate about some of the systemic barriers to people being successful in this community, like educational opportunities, the minimum wage and wealth escalators that are gone or withdrawn,” she says.

Eliminating asset limits on some public-assistance programs is another ACAA goal, says Zwick of the rules limiting the amount of money recipients can have in savings and the number of vehicles they can own. “We understand that you don’t want people with too much money in the program, but they can only leave the program if they develop some savings and some savings behaviors.”

Ultimately, Rodgers says helping individuals and families temporarily to set them up for long-term independent success is paramount. “[The goal is getting] SNAP to a level where it can feed a family and support a family for an entire month.”

Right now, it’s not doing that for McAfee. She wasn’t able to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving and couldn’t afford to buy her grandchildren Christmas gifts. She hopes that one day she’ll be able to have enough to make ends meet and share with others in need.

“I’m the way I want people to be. I’ll help people out there on the street if I have a dollar or two,” McAfee says. “I can’t work anymore and I can’t do that [now], and it takes from me when I can’t help anybody else.”

 

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