Food stamp participation declines by almost 10% in Missouri: Not a pretty picture

MO SNAPIn Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder, having just hoisted a body from a grave says “What a filthy job.” Marty Feldman replies, “Could be worse,” to which Wilder asks, “How?” Feldman notes, “Could be raining.” And, of course, it then starts to rain.

Well, here in Missouri it’s raining on those who ought to get food stamps.

The state Department of Social Services is not issuing the 160+ page Monthly Management Reports for the Family Support Division and Medical Services due to issues with the MO HealthNet/Medicaid program. Folks in DSS research are sharing the SNAP numbers with me.

They are not pretty: From July 2013 to July 2014 a total of 89,768 people have left the food stamp rolls – a drop of 9.8 percent in one year.

That would be good news if Missouri had a booming economy with tens of thousands of new, middle class jobs being created each year. As we all know, we don’t.

Across the nation food stamp state totals have been trending down around 3 to 4 percent a year. I am convinced that Missouri’s “extra 5 percent” in recipient drop is due to the fumbled implementation of the reorganization of the Family Support Division. I have talked to pantry folk who routinely hear from families who have waited two and three months for a routine reauthorization of the food stamp account. Many pantry customers talk of lost documents, the inability to talk to a person who knows their case when they call, and, general confusion in the system.

The major changes in the way food stamp cases are handled began last summer htable_MO_foodstamps3ere in the St. Louis area. The decline in the participant total from July 2012 to July 2013 was 20,053 people – 2 percent of the caseload. If we had the same decline percentage from 2013 to 2014 we would have 70,000 more Missourians receiving food stamps, adding $8.4 million a month to the state’s economy.

In July 2014 the average benefit was $120.18 per person–$1.29 per person per meal. Statewide, $99,628,234 in benefits were issued.

Of course, people who ought to get food stamps but don’t receive them are not starving to death in the streets. They are filling food pantry lobbies and building nutritional debts which their bodies will pay later.

Food stamps in Ferguson

The state folks also shared the total number of food stamp recipients in a number of north St. Louis County Zip Codes. While post office boundaries don’t directly follow city limits, the food stamp numbers were extremely interesting:63135 (downtown Ferguson and some surrounding smaller municipalities): 2,413 recipients

  • 63136 (the W. Florissant apartment area of Ferguson & Jennings): 8,035 recipients
  • 63135 (downtown Ferguson and some surrounding smaller municipalities): 2,413 recipient
  • For comparison, 63130 (most of University City): 2,041 recipients.

Remember that Missouri has better than a handful of northern counties with fewer than 8,000 residents: the concentration of struggling families in one zip code is scary.

The 2009 conundrum

The other month I shared data from the Food Research and Action Center, which, using numbers from USDA, showed that Missouri was the only state in the nation to show a decline in food stamp recipients from 2009 to 2014.

People in certain buildings in Jefferson City were not amused.

The Department of Social Services admitted in late 2009 that Missouri overcounted the number of food stamp recipients. Basically, the different computer systems didn’t listen to each other. While new people were added to the rolls, those within families who should have been removed (moved out of the home, etc.) weren’t. The problem apparently went on for several – perhaps seven – years.

For example, in April 2009 Missouri claimed it had 1,041,077 food stamp recipients, and that is the number FRAC cited this summer. Now the state says the correct total for April 2009 was around 800,000 recipients. They note that USDA has changed some (but not all) published numbers from Missouri for 2009 and the “whoops” era.

The problem appears to have been fixed by the end of 2009: the January 2010 food stamp total was 894,418 people compared to 1,119,067 in September 2009 despite the rapid increase in folks getting help due to the recession.
Now we need to back-up a step. The data FRAC used is from USDA reports on what the federal government paid Missouri for the food stamps issued. In other words, even if the correct number was 800,000 Washington gave Missouri money for a million people. The families getting the bonus money had no way of knowing they were getting too generous benefits. (A more important yet unanswered question is did Missouri ever pay that money back?)

So, what number should be used?

Despite the state’s protestations, evidence shows that Missouri issued benefits to 1,041,077 people in April 2009. If the benefits were issued – even in error – they went to families and the stamps went through cash registers all about the state.

My files from back then show the average benefit was $1.09 per person per meal. (By the way, April 2009 is when benefits soared due to the recovery act’s bonus payments. In March 2009 the average benefit was 93 cents per person per meal.)

In other words, the overpayments probably didn’t allow families to buy steak and lobster. They just made their lives a bit easier. I can live with that.

A quick swipe at Fox News

The GAO recently issued a report on errors in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The headline: Payment Errors and Trafficking Have Declined, but Challenges Remain. The report put the fraud rate at 1 percent of benefits issued and included a chart documenting dramatic improvements since 1999 in case accuracy.

Fox News, of course, headlined their story “Food Stamp Fraud Rampant: GAO Report.”.

I expect their lead story tomorrow to be, “Despite Obama, the Sun Rose This Morning.”