The number of food stamp recipients in Ness County, a sparsely populated oil-rich area in western Kansas, is up more than 480 percent.
That’s not a lot of people – 192, up from 33 over the decade. But the increase came in a county where poverty is low and joblessness hovers around 3 percent.
Which has county officials perplexed and a little dubious.
“Ness County is fairly wealthy,” County Commissioner Fred Flax said. “I don’t know what the requirements are to get food stamps or if anyone really checks.”
Those are the same sorts of issues being raised in Congress, which finds itself in a summerlong deadlock over funding for food stamps.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new name for food stamps, is part of the farm bill. So are subsidies for farmers, which are a boon for Kansas.
Like Ness County, the nation has seen an explosion in food stamp costs, which went from $34.6 billion nationally in 2008 to nearly $75 billion last year.
Kansas offers an interesting lens through which to view the debate raging in Congress over whether there should be steep cuts in food stamps.
The program was established decades ago with the help of Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole. Today the state ranks 36th in the average amount given to SNAP recipients, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, even though it is a low-wage state where food stamps might be particularly needed.
At the same time, the state’s delegation in Congress has helped lead the Republican charge this summer for cuts in SNAP spending.
House members from Kansas backed an effort by their Republican colleague Tim Huelskamp in a failed attempt to cut $31 billion from food stamps over 10 years. The House has for now, however, removed SNAP from the farm bill.
In the Senate, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts also proposed cutting $31 billion over 10 years. His effort also failed, but he has been appointed to a committee to eventually reconcile the House and Senate bills.
Even bigger cuts remain on the table when Congress returns from recess.
As both parties attempt to manage the ballooning SNAP, they also are using it as a political weapon. Liberals portray conservative efforts to limit the program as draconian and heartless, while conservatives criticize liberal efforts to preserve food stamps as stoking an over-reliance on big government.
But a closer look shows that each side omits facts that muddy their own sound bites. Take these political assumptions made by the parties:
A push by conservatives would require able-bodied recipients to work, but that won’t fix the program in an economy with so many minimum-wage jobs. In fact, many workers earn so little that they remain eligible for food stamps.
Liberals say it’s at all-time lows. But even at that level, hundreds of millions of dollars are being misspent each year. Even participants say it’s easy to cheat.
The political debate has raged over cuts to food stamps without as loud a conversation about deep cuts to other subsidies in the farm bill – the ones that go to farmers. But those subsidies provide billions to farmers in a booming farm economy.
Jobs: Not enough
While the economy has shown signs of recovery, millions of working Americans earn so little that they still qualify for food stamps, and that’s especially true in relatively low-wage states such as Kansas.
A greater proportion of Kansas SNAP recipients work than recipients nationally, according to federal data.
Eight-month-old twins Jace and Jax Taylor live with their parents at the Topeka Rescue Mission. Their father, David Taylor, works, but with limited hours at a minimum wage job, he doesn’t bring home enough to feed his family.
The $450 a month the Taylors get in SNAP benefits helps supplement grocery bills when they are not living at the rescue mission.
“It’s a bad idea to cut the program,” David Taylor said.
“Sure, there are people who abuse it, but many of us need it. The cost of living keeps going up, but the minimum wage sure doesn’t.”
According to state figures, at least 39 SNAP recipients live in ZIP codes inside Fort Riley.
The soldiers are among 5,000 on active duty who got SNAP benefits in 2011, according to Pentagon data, mostly among junior pay grades with large families. But the numbers may be increasing with the winding down of troops in Afghanistan and their return home at lower pay rates, according to the state figures.
SNAP beneficiaries have generally been required to register for and accept work, and one of Huelskamp’s proposals would have tightened work rules. For example, it would have required all able-bodied adults to work or participate in a work activation program in order to continue receiving benefits.
Former Kansas Rep. Dan Glickman, a Democrat who oversaw the program as secretary of agriculture from 1995 to 2001, sees it differently.
“It’s fine to tell SNAP recipients to look for work, but if there are no jobs available, that begs the question,” Glickman said. “Most people on food stamps don’t want to be on food stamps.”
U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, said finding better-paying positions needs to be part of the jobs equation.
“Giving people educational opportunities … job training opportunities, getting people the chance to advance their opportunity to get off government assistance is important,” Yoder said.
Kansas has begun a voluntary work project as an additional incentive to get SNAP beneficiaries into jobs.
State officials said that 6,455 SNAP beneficiaries in eight counties were offered voluntary job assistance. Of those, 333 opted to take part and only 140 ended up in jobs that paid an average of $11 an hour. State officials were not able to say how many of those workers had stopped receiving food stamp assistance.
Overall, about 316,000 Kansans are now enrolled in SNAP. In 2000, 4.6 percent of the population received food stamps, compared to 9.4 percent in 2010.
Fraud: No simple answers
While polls show 48 percent of Americans think food stamp funding should be increased or remain at current levels, many people seem to have witnessed what they believe is abuse.
Indeed, Kansas fraud investigators checked into one complaint in which neighbors saw a Cadillac and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the driveway of a Kansas single mother who had boasted that she was on food stamps.
Was that actual fraud? Investigators don’t know. By the time they checked it out, the vehicles were gone, having left with a boyfriend whose assets would have potentially disqualified the single mom.
And that pretty much sums up fraud in food stamps: It’s definitely there, but it’s hard to find. It’s also difficult to measure, and it comes in many forms.
For example, in a practice called “water dumping,” SNAP recipients buy drinks in containers with cash-return deposits, dump the contents, then claim cash for the empty containers.
While SNAP payment accuracy is at 97 percent – the highest in history – millions of dollars also are lost each year simply because of bureaucratic mistakes.
A federal audit in 2011 showed that Kansas officials should have discovered that 883 food stamp recipients were dead, had invalid Social Security numbers or were receiving twice the benefits they were eligible to receive.
That includes 90 Kansans who were getting additional benefits under Missouri’s program.
Kansas officials say they’ve fixed those problems, but overall, they still have a 94.5 percent accuracy rate, current data show. That’s significantly worse than the 97 percent claimed at the federal level, and it led to more than a million dollars in erroneous Kansas food stamp payments.
Aside from bureaucratic errors, no one really knows how much total SNAP fraud is committed by recipients and SNAP vendors, such as grocery stores. But according to a new report, SNAP recipients are trading an estimated $858 million in benefits for cash each year.
“I know a lot of people who get a free ride on SNAP, people who abuse the program,” said Chauntel Meadows, 22, a former SNAP beneficiary living in Topeka.
She said a friend refuses to get a job but qualifies for SNAP by claiming dependents who don’t actually live with her and who are not family members.
Meadows said Kansas officials would do well to “improve the background checks they do for SNAP applicants.”
But even though many in Congress appear to think waste is rampant and often goes unpunished, both federal officials and the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback appear to at least be trying to ferret it out.
The number of fraud investigators in Kansas more than doubled this year, from seven to 16, said Ken Thompson, director of fraud investigations for the state Department of Children and Families.
Even if only 1 percent of SNAP recipients are committing fraud, a national estimate that Thompson calls conservative, that’s $455 million a year nationwide and $4.5 million a year in Kansas, he said.
However, Thompson acknowledged that in the current fiscal year, fraud investigators recovered just under $1 million in improper SNAP payments statewide, only a fourth of the federal estimate of Kansas fraud.
Thompson wants to find more. He said it is too soon to know how much more fraud will be stopped by the new beefed-up fraud unit, “but we also know there is an increased deterrent effect; people know we are out there.”
At the federal level, the U.S. attorney in Kansas has indicted several store owners on charges of food stamp fraud.
Among them are two Wichita men, Ahmed Al-Maleki and Wally Gaggo, who were indicted in early 2011 on charges of trading SNAP benefits for cash (50 cents on the dollar). They allegedly recruited SNAP beneficiaries outside a homeless shelter across the street from the federal courthouse.
The office also goes after individual recipients. It charged Angela Norwood, a 33-year-old Wichita SNAP beneficiary who pleaded guilty to fraud, admitting she traded $300 in food stamp benefits for $150 in cash. She got probation.
“There are big fish and little fish to catch in these cases,” said Norwood’s attorney, Paul McCausland. “The big fish are the ... store owners who intentionally and knowingly participate in defrauding the SNAP program.”
Joann Primer-Scott of Topeka says she knows some fraud goes on, but many people like her need help.
Primer-Scott, a disabled former addict now five years drug-free, receives a benefit of $16 a month, the minimum under the program. She says she uses the money to help pay the higher cost of certain foods she needs because she is diabetic.
“We are suffering out here,” she said. “Many of us have to choose between eating and buying medicine.”
Subsidies: Fewer headlines
The other side of the farm bill – subsidies for farmers – hasn’t registered the same volume of debate as SNAP.
And it’s true that as SNAP grew – thanks to the recession, higher food prices and easier access to benefits – food stamps grew from less than half the cost of the farm bill to far outpace the cost of farm subsidies.
As projected now, 80 percent of the $1 trillion 10-year cost of the farm bill would go for SNAP and other nutrition programs, with 20 percent going for subsidies.
“The out-of-control food stamp program swallows up 80 percent of this trillion-dollar bill before we even get to agriculture policy,” Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, complained in June.
In Kansas, an agricultural state, subsidies to farmers remain twice as costly as food stamps.
In 2012, Kansas ranked sixth in farm subsidies, according to federal data acquired by the Environmental Working Group. Last year, Kansas farmers got nearly $1 billion in government subsidy checks.
By contrast, the state ranked 36th in total SNAP benefits. Kansans received $455 million from SNAP.
The contrast is most pronounced in places like Greeley County along the Colorado border. The federal government distributed more than $166 in farm and crop insurance premium subsidies in 2011 for every $1 in SNAP benefits.
The Kansas delegation is backing some cuts to subsidies. But some question whether they and others in Congress should be taking a stronger stand on the cost of subsidies for wealthy farmers at a time when they are pushing cuts in SNAP.
Instead, three of Kansas’ four House members – all but Huelskamp – voted for a farm bill that left subsidies but stripped out food stamps for the first time in 40 years, allowing Congress to deal with each program individually.
That acrimonious divorce was the “only way to get responsible reforms passed in the House,” said Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas.
As for Huelskamp, the congressman has called for some cuts in subsidies but “makes headlines by belittling social programs like SNAP,” said Aaron Estabrook, who worked for Huelskamp when Huelskamp was a state senator and recently formed the Moderate Party of Kansas.
At the same time, subsidies directly benefit H&H Farms, owned by Huelskamp’s parents, he said. Records show H&H received $1,169,499 in federal farm subsidies from 1995 to 2009.
Huelskamp did not respond to questions for this story.
Jenkins said it made sense, though, for Kansas congressmen to lead the effort to reform food stamps even though farm subsidies are a bigger program in their state. She noted that both the House and Senate are also proposing changes in subsidies.
“I have found people who compare farm policy and food assistance are usually doing so to demonize one in order to prop up the other, and that is irresponsible,” Jenkins said. “Both exist for valid reasons, and we need to make sure that responsible reforms are made to both.”
Future: Odd alliances
The fate of food stamp reform is far from settled. And advocates for the poor are not the only ones arguing to preserve the program.
In a report last year called “Food Stamps Follow the Money,” Michelle Simon, a public health lawyer and consultant, noted that the food industry has joined forces with anti-hunger groups to lobby against SNAP reductions.
In fact, for food retailers, SNAP represents “the largest, most overlooked corporate subsidy in the farm bill,” the report said.
And in the end, she said, any cuts by Congress may be limited by the power of such well-funded lobbyists.
“They (the food industry) can look like good guys to the extent they can back the alliance of anti-poverty groups,” she said.
She noted that J.P. Morgan Chase, which contracts with states to issue SNAP debit cards and track their transactions, lobbies heavily on SNAP issues.
Other major lobbyists include food manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft and Mars.
Then there are food retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Kroger, that are anxious to ensure that SNAP beneficiaries aren’t restricted any further in what or where they can purchase food.
Federal officials won’t release figures on how much specific retailers earn from SNAP, but Massachusetts data mistakenly released in 2010 show that in one year, nine Wal-Mart Supercenters in that state together received more than $33 million in SNAP expenditures.
Indeed, the number of businesses approved to accept food stamps grew by a third from 2005 to 2010 as vendors from convenience and dollar discount stores to gas stations and pharmacies increasingly joined the program.
In Kansas, the retailers with the greatest number of SNAP redemption centers are Dollar General (189), followed closely by Casey’s General Store (115), Walgreen’s (69) and Wal-Mart (68).
Other voices want Congress to begin looking at the big picture: SNAP may be the largest and most expensive of the food programs, but it is far from the only one.
In all there are 15 federal food and nutrition programs, including Women Infants and Children and the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
“Food stamps should be analyzed holistically as one component of a much larger means-tested welfare system,” says a recent study by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
But Congress seems intent on dealing solely with SNAP at this point. That’s one reason why advocates such as food pantries worry that reform will mean deep cuts in food stamps. Already most of their clients are on food stamps and still need more help to get by, they say.
Joanna Sebelien, chief resource officer for Harvesters, the area’s largest food bank, questions whether members of Congress understand the depth of the hunger problem inside their own districts.
Yoder was the only Kansas member who accepted an invitation to meet with people receiving food assistance, she said.
Cutting SNAP “may be good politics, but it’s bad policy,” Sebelien said.