Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Who Gets Food Stamps?

Today is Wednesday, June 5, 2013.

If you ask people in general who they think gets food stamps, a majority will reply that food stamp recipients are mostly Black, that they don't have jobs, and that most of them are lazy and don't really want to work, because, after all, it's so much easier to live off the dole and sell drugs on the side.  Many will also tell you that there are a lot of "welfare queens," single mothers who have several children, each fathered by a different guy.  They will tell you that there is a lot of fraud going on, and that a lot of welfare recipients are bums who sit around and use drugs all day.  They don't even try to get a job, and they feel "entitled" to their dole from the government.  Oh, and among them are a whole lot of illegal immigrants. You will also hear certain people say that the food stamp program is badly administered, with the lion's share of money going to administrators' salaries.  Some will also tell you that it's easy as pie to use the food stamp cards, which look and work like credit cards, for luxuries such as eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, or buying plane tickets.  They will tell you that the food stamp program (called SNAP), is a serious drain on the economy, and that it is significantly responsible for the national debt.  Some will refer you to an  email from a disgruntled veteran, now gone viral, which highlights a single mother of 8 children living in Florida who gets $1500 per month, per child.  Unfortunately, all these beliefs are well-entrenched in the American psyche, and it's going to be really hard to change people's minds. Much of this misinformation comes from stereotyping in the media, and from certain conservative politicians and politically-motivated organizations such as the Heritage Foundation. 

The illustration at the top of this blog is correct.  I checked the data. The census data gives a slightly less-than-accurate picture, but when supplemented by USDA (United States Department of Agriculture, the entity that administers the food stamp program) data, a pattern becomes clear.

Nationally, 61% of food stamp recipients are white.  Only 26.4% are Black.  1.5% are American Indian or Native Alaskan.  2.2% are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 2.7% represent people who identify themselves as two or more races.  "Other" constitutes 6.2%.  This is not to say that there is a mysterious "other" race that we don't know about.  It simply means that racial data is voluntary, and that information was missing on some people's census forms. 

Let's put that into perspective.  Nationally, the population of the United States is 78.1% white, 13.1% Black, 1.2% Native American or Alaska Native, 5.0% Asian, 0.2% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 16.7% Hispanic (any race).

It's important to know that the food stamp program, called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is administered by the various states, not by the federal government.  State data don't all fit the national mold, since the racial component of their populations vary.  Here's an example:

In Alabama, where the white population is 70.1% of the total (66.8% are white, non-Hispanic), the percentage of whites getting food stamps is 46.3%.   Blacks are 26.5 of the Alabama population, and they get 50.7% of the food stamp assistance in Alabama, not that much more than whites.  Native Americans are 0.7% of the population and get 0.8% of the food stamp assistance.  Asians represent 1.2% of the population of Alabama, and they get 0.5% of the assistance.  Pacific Islanders are only 0.1% of the state population, and none of them gets food stamps.  4.0% of the Alabama population is Hispanic.  I didn't find data for Hispanics in Alabama, but 0.7% of food stamp recipients in that state were listed as "other, " which I assume must include Hispanics.   1.2% of the people who get food stamps in Alabama identified them selves as a mixture of two or more races.  There is a higher percentage of Blacks in Alabama than the national average, so it makes sense that more Blacks from Alabama get food stamp assistance than the national percentage for Black people.

In Alaska, the population ratios are quite different.  Whites make up 67.9% of the population (63.7 are white, non-Hispanic), Blacks are 3.6%, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are 14.9% of the population.  Asians are 5.6%, Pacific Islanders are 1.1%, and people who identify themselves as belonging to two or more races are 7.0%.   In Alaska, whites get 43.9% of the food stamp assistance.  Blacks get 2.5%, Native Americans and Alaska Natives get 35.5%, Asians get 6.0%, "other" (the people who did not fill in the racial data) got 1.3%, and those who identified as two or more races got 6.9% of food stamp assistance in Alaska.   This state has a much higher percentage of Native Americans than the national average, so it makes sense that the percentage of Native Americans of food stamps in Alaska is greater than the national figure for Native Americans.

I looked up the data for one more state, my own: South Dakota.  Our population is 84% white, with 84.4% white, non-Hispanic).  This is a much "whiter" state than Alabama or Alaska.  The percentage of Blacks in South Dakota is 1.4% (much lower than nationally), Native Americans 8.9%  (much higher than nationally), Asians 1.0%, Pacific Islander, 0.1%, Hispanic, 2.9 % and people who identify as two or more races, 2.9%.  In South Dakota, 54% of the food stamp recipients are white.  3.6% are Black, 1.0% are Hispanic and 34.2% are "other" - in this case, I would guess that the vast majority of "other" people in the state are Native Americans, as we have very few Asians or Pacific Islanders.

It's interesting to note how few Native Americans are on the welfare rolls.  Some of them are actually taken care of by food assistance programs run by their own tribes, so they are not counted among the recipients in the USDA-administered programs.  Many Native Americans don't know how to get assistance.  Another problem for Native Americans on the reservations, who are among the poorest people in our nation, is that there just aren't jobs available on the reservations, so they can't meet the requirement for applying for jobs without leaving their homes and going off reservation.  If you want to know why more companies don't take their production facilities to Native American reservations, instead of outsourcing them to China, you have to understand that the problem is lack of infrastructure.  Lack of electricity, telephones, and Internet connectivity keeps companies from locating on reservations.  Add lack of good roads to that, and you see why companies are not interested in going there.  There are some other problems crop up for Native Americans that make things different for them than for the general public.  Surprisingly, food tends to cost more on Indian reservations that it does outside of the reservations.  Those who travel off-reservation to get their groceries end up paying more for gas to get to the store.  Another myth about Indians is that they all get big paychecks from gambling proceeds.  Not all tribes run gaming establishments, and the payments are not necessarily that large. Within the U.S., there are 562 Native American tribes.  Only 240 of them run gaming establishments. Also, many people are unaware that there is an increasing number of people who no longer qualify to be on the official rolls of Native American tribes, because of their so-called "blood quantum" level.  In some families, strangely enough, some of the children qualify as official tribal members while others do not.  Only official tribal members get payments. 

Another problem for Native Americans is the dismal graduation rate.  Nationally, only 46.6% of Native American kids graduate from high school.  In states where Native Americans are concentrated, it's sometimes lower.  For example, in South Dakota, the graduation rate for Native American kids has dropped within the last two years to 34%.   By contrast, the national rate for whites is 69.8 percent, for Asians 77.9 percent, Blacks 54.7 percent, and for Hispanics 50.8 percent.  These are all dismal numbers, but as you can see, Native American kids who do manage to graduate have beaten the odds, big-time.

The data are clear:  White people get most of the food stamp assistance nationally.  Even in a state like Alabama, which has a high percentage of Blacks in the population, the percentage of whites who get food stamps is high. 

Chart by Matt Trivisonno
When we look at the data on welfare recipients with jobs, we learn that 30% of recipients do have jobs.   The vast majority of adults who do work are underemployed, trapped in low-wage jobs for which they are generally overqualified. The average wage is lower than $23.50/hour.  On average, food stamp households earn $731 per month in gross income (that's before taxes, folks). Their food assistance averaged $287 a month.

What about the other 70% who don't have jobs? Don't forget that children are counted as welfare recipients, and they are not yet of working age.  Children under 18 make up 47% of all welfare recipients.  Then there are the elderly (age 60 and older), who make up 8%.  In other words, 55% of all recipients are below or above working age.  Add that to the percentage of recipients who are working, and you come up with 85%.  So yes, about 15% are not working, and I would guess that some of them are mothers who can't afford daycare, and I'm sure there must be a significant percentage of people on disability, as well. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that elderly plus disabled are 19% of recipients.  This means that not that many welfare recipients don't work just because they are lazy or prefer to be on the dole. 

It's important to remember that those who receive welfare are required not only to apply for jobs each week, but they are also required to document this in order to continue to receive benefits.  One reason that so many people are out of work is due to the economic woes in this country.  The number of
food stamp recipients began to climb back in 2001.  Before that, the only time the number of food stamps was lower was 1978.  For reference, Jimmy Carter was president then (1977-1981).  In 2000, we elected George W. Bush, who started his term in 2001 and served as President until 2009.  Matt Trivisonno pointed out in his blog on the food stamp program that China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in December of 2001.  As a result, tariffs were lowered, and it became profitable for American businesses, including giants like Apple, Inc., to relocate their production facilities to China.  These production facilities were and are, essentially sweatshops. This resulted in millions of American jobs lost.  Whole towns full of people suddenly lost their livelihood.  Many of these people joined the ranks of welfare recipients. 

When George W. Bush left office, he handed over a rapidly tanking economy to President Barack Obama, and the number of recipients skyrocketed.  The Obama Administration relaxed rules for single people who wanted to apply for welfare in response to the increased joblessness.  It appears that, recently, the number of people on welfare has begun to decline.  Time will tell whether this is true or not.

EBT cards look different in every state.
Another reason for the rise in the number of welfare recipients  in the last decade is that the food stamp program (SNAP) no longer uses paper coupons to allocate benefits.  Welfare recipients use an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card that looks like a credit or debit card, so some of the stigma associated with having to hand over paper "food stamps" has been eliminated, since it looks like recipients are paying the same way as everybody else.  EBT cards do not work exactly like debit cards, however. 

EBT cards that process SNAP funds cannot purchase non-food items, but EBT cards have been programmed in many states to include TANF benefits (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families).  The SNAP benefits cannot be used for beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco, and any nonfood items, (e.g. pet foods, soaps, paper products, and household supplies), vitamins and medicines, and prepared hot foods.  Unlike SNAP benefits, TANF benefits can be used to pay for nonfood expenses, such as diapers, gasoline, heating and utility bills, as well as household items such as toiletries and cleaning products.  The average recipient is only in the TANF program for about 4 months, by the way.

The use of these EBT cards has resulted in misunderstandings on the part of observers, who see people buying non-food items with these cards.  EBT cards cannot be used for travel, no matter which program the recipient is on.  In general EBT cards cannot be used in restaurants, but there are five states where certain elderly, disabled, and homeless recipients can eat prepared meals in restaurants that meet certain qualifications.  In three of those five states, the benefit is not available statewide, but only in certain counties.  Restaurants must offer low cost or reduced price meals and meet other SNAP requirements in order to qualify for the program.

What about welfare queens?  Well, the email that went viral about a Florida mom has been shown to contain falsehoods. The state of Florida has said that such a person does not exist.  The average number of children in a welfare household is about 1.8.  That's under two kids.  In fact, half of welfare families had only 1 child and only 10% of households had more than 3 kids.  There may be a few moms out there who have more kids, but not that many. 

What about all those immigrants who get food stamps?  Folks, 94% of the people on welfare are American citizens.  92% are citizens born here.  3.2% are "naturalized" citizens - people born in other countries who became American. 0.8% have "refugee" status in the U.S. (You have to apply for this, and it is not an easy thing to get, as you have to prove that your life is in danger in your own country.)  3.2% are "other non-citizens" - and the majority of these are people who are on the deportation list, but who have been granted a stay of deportation because they are applying, through channels, for legal resident status or legal work permission status.  Remember, also, that there are parents who are non-citizens, but whose children are citizens of the United States by birth, and the children can qualify for food stamps even though their parents do not.  Illegal immigrants are not eligible for food stamps under any circumstances. 

How does the food stamp program (SNAP) affect the economy?  USDA reports total federal SNAP costs for 2010 and 2011 at $68.4 and $75.3 billion, respectively.  This is a drop in the bucket for a budget that tops $1 trillion.  As the economy continues to improve, these costs are expected to go down.   It is unnecessary to cut finding for SNAP to reduce the federal deficit, because it is already shrinking on its own as the economy continues to recover.   The 2009 Recovery Act temporarily boosted SNAP benefits by 13.6 percent for all SNAP households, but all SNAP households will see a cut as of November 2013.

In answer to the charge that SNAP is run inefficiently, 92% of SNAP funds are used for benefits to recipients.  0.7% of SNAP funds go to SNAP programs on Indian Reservations.  0.3% goes to support for local food banks. 2.5% goes for nutrition assistance in territories of the U.S.  Administrative costs are around 4.5% of the total budget.  Certainly not 70%, as Michelle Bachmann once claimed. The amount of fraud associated with welfare benefits has decreased significantly in the past few years from 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits back in 1993 down to 1 cent per dollar now.

Drugs?  Well, when Florida began testing their TANF recipients for drug use, only 2% failed the test. Considering that an estimated 8.7% of the national population is addicted to drugs, these results show that concerns about drug use among welfare recipients is vastly overestimated.  The amount of money Florida has had to spend for drug testing probably hasn't been offset by reduced food assistance expenditures, and they have had to pay for legal defense when the drug-testing legislation was challenged.

Any questions?  :-/

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