What’s wrong with food stamps?

Jo Ann de la Moriniere, 73, of Ball Ground is one of many who have had problems with the food stamps call-in center. Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Jo Ann de la Moriniere, 73, of Ball Ground is one of many who have had problems with the food stamps call-in center. Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Georgia faces losing up to $76 million in federal funding due to its huge backlog of food stamp applications. It must fix a system plagued by understaffing, antiquated technology and a call-in center that cannot handle all the calls that come in. Today, an analyst on the right suggests a number of reforms, while one on the left writes that the state should hire an adequate number of workers to handle the overload that began mounting with the Great Recession.

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Reform is the real answer

By Rachel Sheffield

Georgia’s food stamp program is making headlines—and not the kind you like to see.

Tens of thousands of applications are backlogged. The state Department of Human Services blames it on a rapid, recession-induced increase in caseloads, combined with a decrease in administrators and a poorly designed administrative system. Now the feds are threatening to pull some funding until the state gets its bureaucratic act together.

Certainly DHS needs to address the administrative problems. But the reality is that the food stamps program as a whole is far overdue for reform. Wise reforms would help ensure that assistance is available to those most in need, while at the same time encouraging able-bodied individuals along the path to self-sufficiency.

Food stamp rolls have shot up dramatically over the last several years all across the country, growing by 125 percent between 2003 and 2013. Georgia’s food stamp rolls increased at a slightly higher rate, roughly 130 percent, during that decade.

Not surprisingly, food stamp funding also soared, quadrupling between 2002 and 2012. Much of the program’s growth is connected to the recession, but rolls were expanding long before it hit in December 2007. Part of the reason is that policy changes implemented before and after the recession have made it easier for individuals to get on food stamps and stay there.

Take, for example, the policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” adopted by Georgia in 2008. It allows states to fast-track individuals into food stamps. More problematically, it allows states to overlook a household’s assets when determining food stamp eligibility.

In Georgia and in most states, this means there is no limit to the amount of savings a household can have and still be eligible for the program.

Additionally, the food stamps program has no meaningful work requirement for able-bodied adults. A reasonable work requirement encourages individuals to get on the path to self-sufficiency and helps recipients preserve dignity. Yet even for able-bodied adults without dependents (“ABAWDs”) the modest work requirement enacted with the 1996 federal welfare reforms has been waived in most states, including Georgia.

A work requirement also helps protect against fraud. Requiring food stamp recipients to report all employment or undertake a supervised job search decreases the odds that a person will be able to collect food stamps while secretly holding down a job.

The food stamp funding formula also needs reform. Currently, 95 percent of the program funds come from the federal government. With so little “skin in the game,” states have little incentive to ensure the funds are used efficiently. To encourage wiser use of these taxpayer dollars, states should gradually take on a portion of food stamp funding.

The reach and cost of food stamps have exploded over the last decade. It is past time for reform. We should jettison policies (such as broad-based categorical eligibility) that allow benefits to flow to those not truly in need. Critically, food stamps must include a work requirement for able-bodied adults to encourage self-sufficiency, as well as to ensure that resources are going to the neediest.

States can take both of these steps now. In Georgia, it would mark much needed progress toward helping individuals in need and getting food stamps back on track.

Rachel Sheffield is a policy analyst specializing in welfare and family issues at the Heritage Foundation.

Starving out needy Georgians

By Melissa Johnson

The state’s chronic underfunding of its human service agency is provoking the threat of a federal crackdown, as its food stamp program isn’t keeping up with the increase in Georgians eligible for benefits following the Great Recession.

Food stamps help put meals on the table for about 1.7 million Georgians every day. It’s too bad the program often serves as a political punching bag, because the truth is it provides a vital support system to many families that lost income when the economy collapsed.

It isn’t their fault the number of Georgians living in poverty rose to 1.8 million in 2012 from 1.3 million in 2007. It wasn’t their call to cut the state’s Department of Human Services budget by more than 15 percent since 2009. They certainly don’t deserve to be drug tested for the privilege of applying for food assistance, as pending legislation would require.

Still, families that rely on food assistance are left to suffer the consequences of an ongoing state budget squeeze. A flawed new phone system in state offices is causing unacceptable waits for people trying to get information about benefits. A backlog of applications is so severe the federal government granted the governor’s request to pause eligibility screening for some applicants to clear it before penalizing Georgia as much as $15 million.

Food stamps are one of the few public assistance programs in place to quickly meet the needs of families as they struggle to get by after the state and national economies collapsed. Thousands of Georgia families were able to use the benefits to purchase groceries after their personal finances cratered.

Operating an efficient food stamp program is also good for Georgia in the long run. Children in families that receive food assistance enjoy better health and educational outcomes as they grow up than children without access to food stamps. Children make up nearly half of Georgia’s food stamp recipients.

Georgia’s problem is self-inflicted. The state did not increase state spending to add caseworkers during the recession, even as caseloads began a rapid climb in 2009. State workers who review eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families handled an average caseload of 761 in December 2013, nearly 17 percent more than just four years ago.

The state did install a new phone system last year in an attempt to catch up with demand. But system glitches continue to cause long wait times and disruptions for both existing and potential food stamp recipients. The resulting backlog prompted a federal agency threat to impose penalties.

The state recently asked for a federal waiver to postpone eligibility screening for thousands of food stamp applicants before the May deadline to avoid the threatened penalties. The federal government granted the request, but this flexibility is just part of a short–term fix. It is past time for state leaders to calculate how many workers are required to run the program efficiently and budget enough money to get the job done.

Melissa Johnson is an analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

17 comments Add your comment

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

April 19th, 2014
1:11 pm

Dr. Megan Wilson, Dr. Rebecca Snyder, or perhaps one of the Keepers said there are about 5 types of Bamboo, food, for adult pandas. And if their preference for the day is not made available, they will let you know about it. The will snout, grunt, snarl, etc.

Amen?

Mamouian

April 19th, 2014
1:02 pm

DeborahinAthens… I decided to come back to this and actually read through your entire rants, and I hadn’t realized how filled with anger you are. Wow! Talk to your doctor, quickly! You are in serious need of medications. I just hope you can make it in time.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

April 19th, 2014
12:49 pm

Evidently I didn’t make myself clear in the first comment. Allow me to express it differently. We allow Yang Yang, Lun Lun, Xi Lan, Po, Mei Lun, and Mei Huan to volunteer their services to Zoo Atlanta. Now immediately, you should have known they were not thinking properly. It is at this point you should have forced them to continue living separately in freedom. Otherwise, by default, you are 100% responsible for spending the amount of money necessary to service their basic needs.

Amen?

Mamouian

April 19th, 2014
10:11 am

Very well stated MHSmith! Now, that we’re back to the original topic, the deflection that liberals like to use to get away from arguments they always lose doesn’t help solve problems. If Deborah thinks that the program is working just fine, perhaps she would like to have a more direct impact by providing money to a drug addicted food stamp recipient herself. Maybe then, she’d take a more active interest in how the money is spent. The reality, however, is that liberals aren’t really into charitable giving, unless it is with someone else’s money……by force of taxation.

MHSmith

April 19th, 2014
9:35 am

@DeborahinAthens, you have no idea where I get my news from and your accusation against me are pure fabricated lies. I want people who need food assistance to receive it until they can regain the fiscal ability to buy food using their own resources. Not allowing people to use what little money they do have to waste on a drug addiction when they can’t even buy food for themselves is the best thing I or anyone can ever do for them. To further demand they enter a drug abuse recovery program to receive public assistance is the least they can do for themselves and their families.

The greater evil in this case, is not my “HARDNESS OF HEART”, DeborahinAthens, it is your “SOFTNESS OF HEAD”!

Mamouian

April 19th, 2014
9:18 am

I rather enjoy reading the two of you as you “attempt” to be condescending and superior! First, you assume (I’m sure you know what that makes both of us) that I’m a Fox News aficionado. There is your first mistake. I was merely pointing out how “clever” it was calling it that “original” name. Now, tell me. Is all this reading you do from DailyKos or Huffington Post? Probably both, with a little MSNBC thrown in for good measure. Deborah, if you think that a rancher who hasn’t paid grazing fees due to an ongoing dispute with the Feds is reason enough to bring out a militarized response, then you go on living in that America. You deserve it… keep on drinking your kook-aid. You calling me stupid? Haha. You are proof that stupidity knows no bounds. Viet, you do understand the idea of use of terms in the non-literal sense, right? Oops, no… apparently not. But, since you want to give me a lesson on the usage, I’ll change that to a logical fallacy. There, does that help you understand? Now, get off your high horses… OUCH! I didn’t say to fall flat on your faces!

VietVet

April 18th, 2014
1:53 pm

Mamouian, Deborah is correct that Fox news isn’t real news. It’s purpose is to mis-inform, not inform. According to a study by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, people who only watch Fox score worse on current event quizzes than people who watch no news at all. Deborah is guilty of a grammatical error, however. She should have said faux news, not Faux News.

And FYI, “ad hominem” means “at the person,” an argument based not on facts, but personal insults, like saying “lefties” or Kook-aid drinkers. To elaborate further, if I had not cited the FD study above, but simply had said you should find someone literate to look up words in the dictionary for you, that would have been an ad hominem attack. See the difference now?