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SNAP Benefits

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11More Than 180,000 Women Had SNAP Benefits Cut Under Obscure 1996 Drug War Rule, Report Says

Those who are eligible for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) can still collect their benefits if they’ve killed or raped someone, but if they have a drug felony on their record, the government will cut them off.

This obscure policy is an often-overlooked provision of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The main provisions of the bill limited the amount of time recipients could receive food stamp benefits, required them to get work within two years, scaled back the federal government’s responsibility for the program (letting states take it over), and engaged in social engineering by directing benefits toward two-married-parent families and discouraging single- and out-of-wedlock parenting.

On top of all that, as part of the “War on Drugs,” in a provision of the bill that received a total of two minutes of debate in the Senate before being unanimously passed by a voice vote, the bill banned anyone with a felony drug conviction from receiving food assistance. The ban applied for life.

“Conspicuously absent from the brief debate over this provision was any discussion of whether the lifetime ban for individuals with felony drug offenses would advance the general objectives of welfare reform,” says a new report by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates fairness and effectiveness in the U.S. justice system.

The report, A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Federal Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits, details the impact of the ban, particularly on women and children, concluding that more than 180,000 women who needed food assistance had their benefits eliminated or reduced between 1996 and 2011.

While it was left up to individual states whether or not to enforce the ban, the study found that when it comes to SNAP benefits, 34 states still enforce at least a modified version of the ban — and nine states continue to enforce the ban completely.

And what’s more, the study found that the policy has no impact on whether or not people use drugs.

“The ban not only fails to accomplish its putative goals, but also is likely to negatively impact public health and safety,” the study’s authors write.

“There is little reason to believe that barring individuals with felony drug convictions from receiving welfare benefits deters drug use or crime,” they add.

“For example, one study of women with drug convictions or pending felony drug charges found that not a single one of the 26 women interviewed was aware prior to her involvement with the criminal justice system that a felony drug conviction could lead to a loss in SNAP or TANF benefits. Furthermore, 92% of the women reported that even if they had known of the ban, it ‘would not have acted as a deterrent during active addiction.’”

Sources: Legal Action Center, (2), PRWORA, Pacific Standard Magazine, The Sentencing Project

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11Food Stamp Cuts Take Bite Out Of Grocery Stores, Rural Areas Likely Hurt Worst

The millions of Americans who don’t make enough money even to eat are facing their first Thanksgiving since 2009 with reduced food assistance, since the $5 billion cut in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits that took effect Nov. 1.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — better known as the stimulus package —funding for SNAP aka “food stamps” was increased, but that hike has now expired.

But while the program obviously provides much-needed assistance for families and children to get the food they need, and the 47 million Americans who need help affording food will now struggle, there is another group already suffering from the cutbacks: supermarkets.

Food retailers in rural areas are having an especially hard time, because according to stats compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of SNAP, food stamp use is on the rise in the countryside, but on the decline in cities.

"In many rural areas around the country, we do have, proportionately, maybe higher participation in the SNAP program," food economist John Anderson told National Public Radio. "And a lot of that gets spent locally, obviously, because that's where it can be spent, in those local grocery stores."

With the cuts, money spent in rural food markets will also be cut, putting food sellers there in a precarious position.

John Elliot, of the nation’s largest grocery chain, Kroger, is remaining calm. He expects families to tighten their belts elsewhere before they cut back on food.

"What I think they'll likely do is cut discretionary spending first. And I realize for many households, they may not have a lot of discretionary funds," Elliot speculated. "But they'll still have to reshuffle priorities. And I suspect that purchases for food will continue to be a priority."

Though the program has been maligned by conservatives since the era of President Ronald Reagan, whose fabricated and racially loaded stories of “strapping young bucks” who use food stamps to buy “T-bone steaks” helped reinforce erroneous notions that people on food assistance are high-living freeloaders, food stamps not only help people eat, they boost the economy.

According to statistics from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, every five dollars of food stamp value spent generates nine dollars in ecnomic activity.

For every $1 billion spent on food stamps, 3,300 farm jobs are created.

Also, by helping to relieve food insecurity, SNAP benefits leave families with more money to spend in other areas, which not only spreads money around the economy, it helps poverty-stricken people get back on their feet, reducing their need for public benefits overall.

In fact, in terms of “bang for the buck,” food stamps are the best form of economic stimulus that exists, according to a 2008 study by the financial firm Moody’s. The beneficial economic ripple effect created by food stamp dollars is more pronounced than any other method of boosting the economy .

Unemployment benefits are the second-best form of economic stimulus, Moody’s found.

SOURCES: NPR, Mother Jones, CNN

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11Plan to Put Photos On Oregon Food Stamp Cards May Cost More than It Saves

Over the past few years the idea that people who receive SNAP benefits or food stamps should be routinely drug-tested has remained hugely popular, despite the fact that even simply testing all applicants initially would cost far more in taxpayer dollars than it would ever save. Therein lays the dilemma facing any political group that attempts to either reform welfare programs or reduce fraud in the program.

Oregon’s state legislature is dealing with just this issue, forming a legislative work group in August to reduce the state’s rate of welfare fraud. A report issued by the Oregon state auditor found that lottery winners and prisoners were still receiving their benefits. According to The Oregonian one in three Oregon residents were utilizing programs for low-income residents such as Medicaid, food stamps, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

A recent proposal has been levied, also reported by The Oregonian, which would put individual beneficiaries’ photos on the cards so that only those people could use them. The program would cost the state “at least $1.5 million in the first year and about $930,000 annually after that” and there is no guarantee that the program would even work. While it may reduce instances of fraud for deceased or incarcerated beneficiaries, Oregon law allows for people who receive single lump-sum payments—like winning the lottery—to continue drawing benefits. Also money recouped or saved will most likely be federal dollars, whereas the money for these fraud-prevention programs comes out of state coffers.

The problems inherent with the proposal are not solely financial. There are also privacy and discrimination issues. Rep. Carolyn Tomei told The Oregonian in August, “You can’t treat [Trail card users] any differently than somebody using a credit card.” One initiative that warned cardholders they would face scrutiny for ordering multiple replacement cards reduced requests by 19 percent at little cost to taxpayers. Still, there remains a fear that costly anti-fraud policies will be implemented because of public sentiment rather than fiscal practicality.

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11Congress Seeks To End 'Heat And Eat' Program That Ties Food Stamps To Home Heating Aid

As congress moves to slash food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, some states have been figuring out ways to get more food to people in need through a program called “heat and eat.”

Now the U.S. Senate wants to close what critics of helping people eat call a loophole in the law as a way to trim $4 billion over 10 years from the SNAP program. At the same time, Congress wants to bring down the hatchet on the food stamp program, gutting it by $35 million.

This comes after a cut in the program already went into effect on Nov. 1

The House would achieve its new cuts through work requirements, mandatory drug testing and other harsh measures. However, more than three of every four households that receive SNAP assistance include a child or an elderly or disabled person. And 30 percent of food stamp recipients already work, but make so little money they qualify for food stamps.

Under “heat and eat” households that receive subsidies to heat their homes automatically qualify for additional food stamp benefits — an average of $1,080 per year, or 20 bucks and change for food each week.

States such as Connecticut have used the program to grant as little as $1 per year in heating assistance to families, in order to help them qualify for more food assistance.

The House proposal would raise the required heating subsidy to $20 per year in order to trigger additional food aid, making the program too expensive for most states.

Food stamp spending has increased since the financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent recession that it caused. While many Republican critics have attributed the growth to “waste, fraud and abuse,” a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities earlier this year found that “SNAP is effective and efficient,” and that the rate of such abuses is actually very low.

“SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program, and despite the recent growth in caseloads, the share of total SNAP payments that represent overpayments, underpayments, or payments to ineligible households reached a record low in fiscal year 2011,” the report said.

The growth in food stamp spending was caused primarily by the increased demand during the recession, as more people either lost their sources of income or were forced into low-paying jobs.

SOURCES: Bloomberg News, CBPP, My Record Journal, Bill Moyers

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11Get Fat On Food Stamps? Recent Washington Post Story Says You Do, Data Begs To Differ

Studies have shown that food stamps, despite the predominance of media reports portraying recipients as lazy freeloaders, are a highly beneficial program — not only for the people who need and receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but for the country as a whole.

Especially in a recession, the economy needs people to spend money, not save it. Because people need to eat, SNAP benefits are spent and spent quickly, pumping needed cash back into the economy.

But are food stamps good for the waistlines of people who need them? A Washington Post story published over the weekend says no — or tries to. The story zeroes in one Texas county in which 40 percent of residents require food assistance.

Food stamps translate into cheap food, and cheap food can easily mean fatty, sugary, high-calorie food. The county has twice the national average rate of obesity and diabetes, the Post says.

"Has the massive growth of a government feeding program solved a problem, or created one?" the story asks.

SNAP benefits were cut nationwide on November 1 of this year, and the Republican-led House of Representatives wants to keep cutting, hoping to kick 3.8 million people off the program. But one advocacy group, the Food Research and Action Center, says that the answer as far as regulating obesity is concerned, is not fewer people on food stamps, but more.

FRAC listed it main recommendations in a recent report. They include, “increasing participation in SNAP; improving SNAP benefit levels so people can afford adequate diets, including healthier foods; promoting fruit and vegetable purchases with SNAP benefits; supporting SNAP use at farmers’ markets and other venues; enhancing SNAP Nutrition Education; and increasing access to healthy, affordable foods in underserved communities.”

In other words, give people more resources to buy better food. And steer them toward healthy foods, because much cheap food is of poor, or even negative nutritional value.

While some studies, such as a 2008 survey by The U.S. Department of Agriculture, have found some correlation between food stamp use and obesity, that correlation is confined to adult women only. Men and children show no increased obesity levels if they receive SNAP benefits.

But FRAC questions even the data pertaining to women. Obesity rates correspond to income and education level, whether food stamps are part of the picture or not. Low-income women tend to have higher rates of obesity, regardless of whether they use SNAP benefits.

Obesity rates are lower among both men and women with college degrees than those who did not go to college.

SOURCES: Huffington Post, Washington Post, FRAC (2)

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11Farm Bill Food Stamp Cuts Will Result in 170,000 Veterans Losing Benefits

After many heard the story of Andrew Chambers—currently in jail after being denied treatment for mental injuries—a preponderance of people asked why the government or society-at-large couldn’t have done more for Chambers or any of the other countless veterans who fall through the cracks. Veterans who’ve served in the last decade are significantly more likely to be unemployed than civilians. Like McDonald’s, the government accepts that many low-ranking soldiers (especially those with families) will rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP in order to make ends meet. Well those who’ve separated from the military, but are unemployed also rely on SNAP, which has just faced historic cuts the first of November and is poised to face even more cuts as a result of the Farm Bill which has passed both the House and the Senate. Of the $53 billion cut from the federal budget as a result of the bill, nearly $40 billion of it comes from SNAP benefits.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reading of Census data, “approximately 900,000 veterans receive SNAP assistance each month.” adding via parenthetical aside, “[t]his figure is almost surely understated, because Census data do not capture SNAP receipt by homeless veterans.” Of those veterans receiving benefits, 170,000 of them might lose their benefits because of the House version of the bill, specifically two provisions relating to food assistance for jobless workers.

Also, according to a report from the Urban Institute, underemployed veterans could benefit from the expanded access to Medicaid as a result of the Affordable Care Act. There are a significant number of veterans who do not use the VA—either because they don’t have access or don’t want to contribute to an overloaded system—that could get basic medical care (including mental health services) much faster than they would through the VA, whose current backlog of cases is shrinking but by no means fixed.

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11Governor Bobby Jindal Vows to Strip Benefits As a Result of EBT System Glitch

When the system that handles Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT went offline on October 12, retailers across 17 states saw a run on the shelves that rivaled the height of Black Friday shopping.

According to KSLA, many stores “followed contractual requirements to set a $50 limit and call for authorization of charges during a system outage.” However, Wal-Mart’s corporate decision-makers said their stores allowed the transactions without checking the limits.

According to Fox News, retailers, “not taxpayers, are on the hook for the excess money spent at the locations.” However, the stores in question have the right to seek charges against those who took advantage of the glitch.

Yet, according to a statement from the Many, La. Police Department’s Facebook page, “after reviewing surveillance tapes and interviewing witnesses, Walmart has no evidence of any theft, nor any other criminal activity during the October 12th disturbance at the store.” Since it was the responsibility of the retailer to verify the transaction limits on the cards, those who took advantage of the glitch did not technically commit a crime.

Governor Bobby Jindal’s office “vowed,” according to The Advocate, “to strip food stamp benefits from recipients who misled retailers about their spending limits.” After the system came back online, at least “12,000 transactions generated insufficient funds notices” when service was restored. Those who are found to have abused the system intentionally could face losing their benefits for at least a year or even permanently.

Still with the news that food stamp cuts were coming right before the holidays, many can’t blame people for attempting to stock up on food items. Perhaps if benefit recipients felt more secure in their ability to feed themselves or their families, less would have abused the glitch. It remains unclear how many of the 12,000 benefits recipients stand to lose their benefits.

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11Democrats Voted for Food Stamp Cuts Indirectly

According the Huffington Post, a group of Democratic representatives from the House held a press conference on Tuesday to implore their colleagues to take action to prevent the drastic food stamp cut that kicks-in on Friday, November 1.  Yet, the article suggests that these representatives actually voted for the cuts, via their votes for earlier legislation that drew from the food-stamp budget.

The bills, which prevented teacher layoffs and created a federal free-lunch program, were supported by democrats “begrudgingly” In a 2010 letter from Congressional Democrats to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, they said, “we are now forced to choose between jobs and healthcare or food for hungry people. This is one of the most egregious cases of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and is a vote we do not take lightly.”

Still, no action was taken and then the Republicans took the house, bringing in a bevy of new blood. According to The New York Times, GOP leadership put forth the bill last September that made the cuts official “under pressure from Tea Party-backed conservatives,” but cited decreasing joblessness as the justification for the cuts, despite the fact that nearly a third of food-stamp recipients are employed.

Although there are many anecdotal claims of welfare fraud, there is little empirical evidence to back that up. However, perhaps rather than working to prevent the food stamp cuts, Democrats in Congress should instead turn their attention to the issue of increasing the minimum wage. Historically, Americans support the idea of higher wages over government handouts, and increasing the minimum wage significantly could address the needs of those who work in low-paying jobs whose wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. 

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11Fox News Makes Dubious Claim That Food Stamps are Being Sold on Craigslist

Since the Great Recession of 2008, the number of Americans who depend on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits has doubled. Because of this increase, opponents of the federal assistance program demand that benefits be cut, mostly citing anecdotal fraud or abuse, rather than specific, empirical data. However, Fox News has conducted an investigation and discovered “several offerings at Craigslist sites around the country, where the sellers offered the welfare benefits at large discounts from face value.” They also point out that some who are “desperately hungry” are also offering cash for SNAP benefits. Yet, outside of quoting three posts, they offer no concrete numbers about how many ads selling food stamps they discovered.

Opposing Views did its own research by selecting Craigslist sites from 15 major metropolitan areas and searching for a combination of search terms that might be used to sell food stamps for cash, even discreetly. In fact, the closest we came was this ad which offers SNAP benefits or EBT cash assistance (the posting is unclear) in order to buy a wedding cake. Some of the more hardline opponents of SNAP benefits decry folks for purchasing potato chips or junk food, this will surely be seen as an offense, but it is a far cry the food stamp open-market the Fox News article implies exists.

In fact, the search uncovered a number of Craigslist ads from people who detail their financial situations in a plea for help to the anonymous masses on the internet. A few ads turned up where sellers of items express their willingness to accept food stamps in trade. There were a number of ads for tickets to concerts or sporting events that also say they will accept food stamp benefits, but the majority of those ads had been flagged and removed from the site. While this practice surely does happen, the evidence appears to support that it is far less widespread than the Fox News report would have us believe.

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11Food Stamp Cuts to Hit Families Right Before Holidays

As Opposing Views pointed out last week, many of the programs deemed “nonessential” during the government shutdown included ones meant to help the poorest citizens.

Now that both Democrats and Republicans are moving forward to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the budget, millions of Americans who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are rightfully worried about their access to the benefits they’ve come to depend on.

Back in September, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill “that slashes billions of dollars from the food stamp program,” according to The New York Times. The measure “eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path,” according to Indiana Republican Representative Marlin Stutzman.

While House Speaker John Boehner claimed the bill made “getting Americans back to work a priority,” James McGovern of Massachusetts call the bill “one of the most heartless I have ever seen.”

According to NBC News, “[the] program is now serving more than 23 million households, or nearly 48 million people,” and that how much benefits will be reduced varies on the specifics of an individual’s situation. A “family of four with no other changes in circumstances will receive $36 less per month, according the USDA.”

Yet, in the Congressional discussions to come, there is certainly bound to be even more cuts desired. Including the cuts from this law, the SNAP program is poised to cost $700 billion over the next 10 years. Although, even though that figure is less than the 2012 Department of Defense budget (by somewhere between $7.5 billion to around $17 billion), deficit hawks want to see SNAP’s costs cut even more.

The first round of cuts are set to happen in November, ironically right before Thanksgiving and the holiday season. 

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