Food Stamps: The snap of SNAP and laundry on the field

It’s Fall in the United States.  Many towns, cities, villages, and seemingly barren treks will have a high school football game on Friday nights. On Saturday, colleges and universities have teams out with crowds ranging from over 100,000 in a packed stadium or with more players on the field as fans might number in the teens.  On Sunday, the NFL and professional football garners the spotlight.  Of course, you will also have NFL games on Monday and Thursday.  Some institutions of higher learning will have Thursday, Friday, and even Wednesday, Tuesday, Sunday, and Monday games.  High schools might play on a Thursday or Saturday with possible JV games on other days.  Simply it would be difficult to find a day of the week in the Fall within the continental United States with the ole pigskin not out on the gridiron somewhere as two teams engage in this traditional sport.

Similarities seem endless.  Regardless of venue there is one group who players, coaches, and fans want to have on the field even though the hope is that this group will go unnoticed during the game.  Referees, game officials, zebras, it really doesn’t matter how you term those participants.  You’re upset or angry when a call goes against your team.  You believe the blind zebra missed a foul or infraction by the opponent or wrongfully assessed a penalty on your team.  Even in the best of the rivalry games, opponents will find a commonality in questioning the judgment of the officials at some point.

Even though the officials are often the most despised individuals on the field, would you want to play in or watch a game without officials?  Coaches, players, and fans know the rules.  If you don’t know the rules you probably think you do or will at least pretend to know.  Why is it that we need and want those zebras running on the field and occasionally blowing a whistle and tossing a yellow rag onto the ground?  Watch closely and at times, you’ll also see referees toss a bean bag onto the ground or even their hats.

How likely is it for the 22 players on the field to accurately call their own penalties?  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in our eyes the DB for our team was just going for the ball and made incidental contact with a receiver even if our DB ripped the helmet off and basically mugged the offensive player. Likewise, when the DB on the other team makes absolutely no contact as our receiver drops the perfectly thrown ball we scream pass interference.

I doubt if any system exists where someone will abuse that system.  At times that abuse is unintentional while it is intentional in others.  Unintentional or not, someone else is being affected negatively by that abuse.  As an example today, Disney announced that Disneyland and Walt Disney World will no longer allow people with disabilities to go to the front of lines because of increasing abuse by people without disabilities.

With the ruckus about Food Stamps and the Federal budget, I wanted to examine things in a way that I could just crunch numbers and leave emotion at the door.  Easier said than done, but here’s an attempt.

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program.”  You can read about SNAP basics here.

You can read the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities statement about the passage of H. R. 3102, An Act to Amend the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008; and for other purposes, here.

A copy of that bill which passed the House by a vote of 217 to 210 can be found here.

In some ways, I’m comparing the SNAP program to the football games in that a few people who do not need the assistance take advantage of the system.  Those are the penalties being called and being missed.  There is also corruption and fraud which enables some to amass financial profits off the system.  Those are the personal fouls and conduct penalties which can lead to ejection.

Different groups will cite different numbers, but I think most would agree that the majority of people receiving SNAP assistance are in need, especially when one considers the elderly and the children on the system.  With the potential exception of the most callous and heartless individuals, I doubt that many of us would want to watch someone starve to death.  I doubt if there is need to cite any evidence that a healthy person eating healthy foods should be more productive than someone who does not have a healthy diet.

I hear the argument already, that “healthy” is the problem.  You have seen or heard of someone from somebody not making the best use of the assistance.  They’re eating junk food at the taxpayers’ expense while someone not receiving SNAP can barely purchase the essentials.

What about those needing and using the assistance as intended?  Should they be punished?  Former US Senators, Bob Dole (Republican – Kansas) and Tom Daschle (Democrat – South Dakota), combined to write an Op-Ed about the issue entitled “Stop Playing Politics with Hunger.”

Current House Majority leader Eric Cantor (Republican – Virginia) has argued that the House cuts are necessary to help stop the abuse of the system.

Mr. Cantor, I agree that there is abuse in the system.  I’ll say that waste exists as well.  These cuts, however, fail to address either abuse or waste and most likely will actually cost more to implement than the savings obtained.  For those thinking in terms of only dollars and cents, think about the added administrative costs associated with this crackdown on who is eligible?  Who is paying for any drug testing?  For those denouncing big government, this bill actually strips powers from the states and those closest to the problems and concentrates it in the Federal government.

Politically it looks good to say that you have saved $39 billion over the next decade.  No money has been saved with this sleight of hand.  That $39 billion in actual food will disappear, but it is replaced with what will most likely be a greater amount in administrative and bureaucratic costs as both areas expand.

Instead of addressing the abuse and the waste by actually working to figure out where the holes and flaws are actually taking place, the House has decided once again to shove dealing with real problems down the road.

This so-called cut in US spending is only political posturing.  Those who want will still abuse the system.  Those playing by the rules are the ones getting cut.  Even if you care nothing about those individuals, as a taxpayer you haven’t saved anything.  Instead of purchasing food, we will be purchasing administrative overhead with a much larger bureaucratic system.  A buck is a buck, so if Congress is going to spend it, where should it be spent?

Playing with numbers:

Since my primary research field is Southern political history post Civil War, I did not have to demonstrate research competency in two foreign languages as the majority of my peers.  I had the undergraduate hours and crammed to pass a competency exam in one foreign language.  My other area, however, is statistics and quantitative analysis which placed this history professor in some graduate level mathematics courses in order to demonstrate competency.  Marrying a Political Scientist years later, my basic understanding of statistics and figures comes in handy as I can proof and reconstruct data sets for her research.  I mention statistics because it is easy to make numbers appear how an individual wants.    There are just so many methods available which are numerically sound.

Some will argue or disagree with the numbers given by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in their “Policy Basics:  An Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).”  It’s Kool Aid, the government, a part of the Washington complex, or brainwashing.  Those retorts have been lobbed at me along with more descriptive rejoinders.

Still, please scroll down to the subheading “How Much Do Households Receive in Benefits?”  That first sentence:  “The average SNAP recipient received about $133.41 a month (or about $4.45 a day) in fiscal year 2012.”

Now the term “average” means that some receive more and others less than the cited $4.45 per day.  I’m not asking you to believe or disbelieve those figures.  I ask, however, that you compare that number to another one.  I once worked for an institution which is a part of the University System of Georgia.  Other states are similar, and I’m using Georgia because I have firsthand experience with their forms and because I am no longer affiliated with any institutions within that system as it was a past employer.

Look at the per diem allowance for meals for employees of the system when traveling.

On average for 3 meals per day, the USG system reimburses employees $28.  I say on average because if I were to travel to Atlanta for meetings, I could receive a per diem meal allowance for $36 at day.  Traveling outside the state of Georgia, might increase the size of that per diem meal allowance depending on the Federal per diem rates for that area.  Direct links to those rates are given on the same page of the business procedures manual in section 4.4.3.

Just consider $28 per day for 30 days.  That comes to $840 for the month for 90 meals.  Now let’s say that I only ate one (1) meal per day and coded that meal as lunch.  I could still be reimbursed $210 for the month for 30 meals at $7 each.  Coding that meal as breakfast, would still see me getting $180 back for the month at $6 a meal, and if I chose to eat my single meal as dinner, I could seek reimbursement for $450 that month as I have $15 which can be allocated for that meal each day.

The average SNAP recipient receives $4.45 per day so for 30 days that amounts to $133.50.  Agree or disagree with that average number as according to definition it is higher in many cases.  Still, statistically envision the range and size of a curve if $28 is within one standard deviation of that average.  That $28 while the maximum for most travel areas within the System is usually the amount reimbursed because often administration and their support staff do not want the extra work of auditing receipts and simply code the maximum allowed.   Of course that reimbursement is not intended to be given for extended periods.  Even out of state, my travels for work were 5 days maximum.  I did know a support staff employee at another institution who attended a training seminar which lasted for 3 weeks.  Also, those funds are not being distributed to millions of individuals.  I’m not comparing apples to apples, but using figures from Georgia which are less contradicted to illustrate an emphasis placed on the cost of a meal.  Generally if you eat out, the cost will be greater.  Still, I would not have spent $28 a day on meals without reimbursement.  Would any Member of Congress even fathom the amount of food which could be bought for $4.45?

Are the University System of Georgia meal allowance rates reasonable?  I can’t say.  It depends upon the chair in which you are sitting and how you want to view those numbers.  Perspective and a lot of intangibles are relevant to that Yes or No question.

My point is that regardless of one’s feelings about SNAP and abuse of that system, when broken down the numbers are akin to sticking a small needle in an Olympic size swimming pool.  Yes with enough punctures the water will drain out.  Still, if you encountered a drip or series of drips and then saw another spot flowing 50+ gallons a minute, which would you address first in hopes of saving water in that pool?

A majority in the House of Representatives are happy and bragging about closing up a few little punctures leaking while they are apparently oblivious to the gallons wasting away elsewhere.  For those who want to argue, well we have to begin somewhere I’ll agree that we do.  If we want to save water in that pool, should our focus be on the drips or on the streams of out flowing water?  Maybe one does not have the ability to patch that huge hole. That will take time, effort, and know how.   Even if you lack that ability, however, it should not be ignored or put off.  Then again, if someone is so happy by just covering up a few little punctures with “ABC ” already been chewed gum instead of repairing them for real, what can we expect?

I just don’t see where this House bill stops the fraud and abuse, and I don’t understand how increasing the administrative aspects on determinations will not increase the amount of money spent with nothing in return.

It used to happen.  I’ve actually seen it in my lifetime and can point to countless times in history.  Why in recent memory won’t any Member of the House of Representatives or the United States Senate actually discuss issues with someone outside their clique and then design legislation meant to help the United States of America regardless of the score given on some special interest group report card?  Why aren’t Members of Congress able to stand up to the “threats” of contested primaries if they cross party lines?   Could it be that today’s world of always being on the move and instant technology makes it harder to get to know each other?  With technology, it seems like you can find any group who agrees with you.  Doesn’t that hamper our ability to learn from and to teach someone of different beliefs?  Honestly, how easy is it to stereotype people you do not know than it is to make the same broad statements about someone you know?

Students often ask me why the President doesn’t do something.  I taught my first courses at the close of Clinton’s 2nd term, but my answer has been consistent with Clinton, Bush, and Obama.  It’s that thing we call the Constitution, and it limited the powers of the Presidents from George Washington through today and tomorrow.