Skip to main content

Features

SNAP out of it

The well-entrenched food stamps program goes on and on, with no sign that a GOP Congress is serious about reform

SNAP out of it

Harris shows his SNAP card. (Kim Henderson)

Shade can be hard to come by on lunch-hour sidewalks in the nation’s capital. Lingering in a shard of it fronting the Community for Creative Non-Violence on 2nd Street NW, the largest homeless shelter in the country, Alphonso Harris waits with fellow residents for his meat and three sides to settle. Behind them the din of D.C. traffic—honking horns and hissing air brakes—is steady.

No problem, though: Harris drowns it out with earbuds, their cords draped across a T-shirt personalized by bleach dribbles and middle-age spread. His smartphone offers the power source, and Harris pulls it from his jeans to make an adjustment before walking away. Something else he grabs from his frayed pocket: a District of Columbia EBT card. The 52-year-old former meter money collector has been on food stamp rolls since 2008, and he needs to make a Walmart run.

Two streets over from the shelter, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are wrangling over budget cuts that could spell change for Harris and more than 43 million other Americans on food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Trump administration has proposed a nearly $193 million reduction over the next 10 years to an expensive SNAP program that critics say has been running on autopilot (and ever-increasing appropriations) since the 1970s.

What does such a reduction mean at street level?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will have a lot to say about that. Many Americans are surprised to hear that 80 percent of the USDA’s budget goes for feeding programs and only 20 percent for farmers. USDA headquarters are across the Mall from the big homeless shelter and west toward the Washington Monument. They span three blocks in an area where a 100-square-foot windowless office rents for $1,400 a month: Running a welfare program is big business.

The imposing United States Department of Agriculture Administration Building, clad in marble and boasting a skylit courtyard and semicircular stairway, emerged in stages beginning in 1904, during agriculture’s heyday. As the first large Beaux-Arts-style building in Washington, it became the prototype for structures in the Federal Triangle. Another nod to importance: The USDA was the only department allowed to drive its footings into National Mall turf. 

But that’s not the only Ag building. Across a pair of pedestrian bridges, the seven-story South Building stands stark and functional in contrast. Constructed in response to burgeoning Depression-era programs, its 1936 exterior denotes harder times, with limestone on the elevations visible from the Mall and brick on those that are not.

Lance Cheung/ZUMA Press/Newscom

USDA headquarters (Lance Cheung/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Without credentials, citizens can’t access the office areas of either of these main buildings. A photo ID and some patience will, however, get them through to the USDA cafeteria. Visitors enter the South Building’s Wing 3, maneuver their way through security scans, and arrive in an airy dining hall that has garnered a four-star rating on Yelp and that sports long rows of tables spread with everything from pasta salad to peach foster, and teriyaki pork to jambalaya. Overhead and in the hallway, banners give a glimpse into USDA workplace culture: “Top 10 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” and “Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender Pride Month.”

Surely, with all this space, the USDA complex has room for SNAP administrators. After all, until the Pentagon came onto the scene, the USDA’s South Building, with some 4,500 rooms and halls that stretch the length of a football field, was the largest office building in the world. But all of that space is not enough to accommodate the Food and Nutrition Service, manager of SNAP and other hunger safety net programs. That agency requires 14 stories of office space all its own at the end of tree-lined Park Center Drive in Alexandria, Va., 7 miles away.

The extent of the USDA’s Washington-area holdings may point to bureaucratic bloat, but their spatial separation is also symbolic of something else: the odd coupling of farm and welfare concerns. What began in 1939 as a simple effort to transfer farm surplus to malnourished city residents has morphed into something more like a limited partnership. The USDA’s agriculture and SNAP interests are a legislative combo deal in which SNAP supporters on congressional committees support sugar subsidies in exchange for support of their huge welfare programs, and vice versa.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has studied poverty for three decades and says the USDA isn’t interested in behavioral conditions that create a need for food assistance. In his view, the transfer of authority over SNAP to the Department of Health and Human Services would be a good place to start the ball of reform rolling. “The food stamps program shouldn’t be run by a secretary whose main concern is soybeans,” he maintains. “It’s an anti-poverty program, not an agricultural program.”

President Donald Trump’s pick for the top ag spot might disagree. When Sonny Perdue became secretary of agriculture in April, the former farmer, veterinarian, and governor of Georgia chose a motto to mollify: “Do right and feed everyone.” Reaching that lofty goal seems almost possible for the likable Perdue, who tosses his jacket and works auditoriums as though he’s handing out blue ribbons at a state fair. His one-on-one skills aren’t bad either. Pulling from his experience as a grandfather of 14, Perdue recently talked school lunch programs and pizza-improving suggestions with a student at the Catoctin Elementary cafeteria in Leesburg, Va.: “Thicker crust and real sauce? I’ll pass it on.” But his ability to parley with Congress, not kids, will likely define Perdue’s tenure.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Perdue has lunch with students at Catoctin Elementary School. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Perdue had his first Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing this summer. Room 124 of the Dirksen Building features thick wood paneling and heavy leather wingbacks on carpets colored an official blue. Camera equipment hangs bulky beneath the elevated dais. The five senators sitting across from Perdue cut to the chase. Curtailed trading with Canada was hurting Wisconsin dairy farmers. Montana ranchers would lose out if a certain range laboratory closed. And that wildfire in Kansas—landowners needed emergency compensation for fencing but couldn’t get it.

Perdue responded easily on everything from livestock indemnity programs to rural broadband. More than once a senator remarked that it’s good to have a farmer sitting in the secretary’s seat. Those pushing for SNAP reform aren’t so sure.

SNAP’s annual costs doubled during the recession, and they remain near that $75 billion mark now, eight years after the economy began to recover. Fiscal hawks say that raises a valid question: Are there folks on SNAP who shouldn’t be? But Perdue insists the program isn’t broken and doesn’t need an overhaul. That business-as-usual attitude also prevailed at a June hearing on Capitol Hill where the talk among representatives was SNAP innovation—new mobile apps and on-demand phone recertification interviews—rather than reduction.

U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., inserted the lone call for restraint: “We’re at least $20 trillion in debt. I’m very supportive of the USDA, but the ensuing economy means we have to do more with less.” For Yoho, SNAP issues hit home, and not only because 38,000 households in his district receive benefits. He and his wife Carolyn have their own safety net story. “We were 19-year-old newlyweds, as broke as church mice,” Yoho explained by phone. “I got laid off. We both come from broken homes, so there was no one to fall back on. We got food stamps for about six weeks. I understand the need for assistance.”

That four-letter word—need—is the one piece of vocabulary that splices most SNAP discussions. U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., insists participants need uninterrupted access to their benefits. He complains about a three-minute EBT card outage in Louisiana. Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute says the USDA needs to be more transparent. At the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Jim O’Hara describes the need for disclosure forms from major sugary drink companies lobbying against change. U.S. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., believes lawmakers need to revisit the admonitions from Jesus in the 25th Chapter of Matthew regarding the “least of these.” 

But at the White House, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says the primary need is perspective—that of the people paying the taxes: “We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of people on those programs. We’re going to measure compassion by the number of people we can get off those programs.” 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Mulvaney (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

‘We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of people on those programs. We’re going to measure compassion by the number of people we can get off those programs.’ —Mick Mulvaney

Getting off the program took time for Antonette Smith. Raised near Pembroke, Ill., a community whose poverty has made headlines for four decades, Smith spent 14 years on the receiving side of the food stamp equation. She says having five children around her dinner table meant $600 dollars of benefits each month—“full cabinets and a full freezer. It helped.” Smith, 41, admits a drug habit sometimes caused her to put the family’s EBT card in the hand of her responsible oldest daughter, but that changed when she moved to Mississippi and turned to God: “I wanted to live for Him and mother my children right. I began to walk in the calling the Lord had given me.” 

Smith earned her GED diploma and then used SNAP’s transportation services to find work, eventually holding two jobs to keep her family out of public housing. She agrees with lawmakers who want to make employment part of the SNAP package: “I could have easily said they’re going to take care of me, but it wasn’t designed to be a lifestyle, just a helping hand.” Still, Smith says giving up that sense of security was hard when, in 2015, she was no longer able to renew SNAP because she no longer had children living at home: “It felt good, but I was at a loss. I had been on food stamps for so many years.” 

Smith says her SNAP story might read differently if the church had played a bigger part in it. She tells of a time when she had no money to pay her light bill after an automobile wreck. When Smith asked for help, church leaders directed her to a government program. “I had been in my Bible enough by then to know that God never told the government to take care of His people. That’s a problem—teaching faith and belief in God, then telling me to go to the world.” 

Now the business owner and author is focused on giving back. Two years ago she launched Empowerment Ministries, an outreach to help students enter the job force. As Smith leads participants in Bible studies, she also teaches them how to sit up straight and to extend their hands during introductions. The ministry maintains a clothes closet of business suits and provides two weeks of gas money for new employees waiting on their first paycheck.

Empowerment Ministries helps people depend on work rather than welfare, and that’s in keeping with what President Franklin Roosevelt, Mr. New Deal himself, wanted. In 1935 he said: “In this business of relief we are dealing with properly self-respecting Americans to whom a mere dole outrages every instinct of individual independence. Most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, in this case honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral disintegration. We propose to build that barrier high.” 

That’s not impossible, even today. The state of Alabama’s recent effort to erect “saving barriers” resulted in an 85 percent drop in food stamp participation for 13 counties. The data involve a subset of participants known as able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), ages 18-50. When work requirements were put in place on Jan. 1, the number of ABAWDs collecting food stamps in those counties declined from 5,538 to 831, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources.

Efforts like that could lower unnecessary SNAP participation, but at the USDA’s office in Arlington, Va., career employees who have seen administrations come and go are waiting to see what becomes of the proposed Trump budget—with little apparent anxiety. As one SNAP administrator put it, leaning over his desk with a smile, “It will take an act of Congress—literally—before we feel it.”

Meanwhile, participants like D.C.’s Alphonso Harris remain entrenched. Listening to details about possible cuts to SNAP, he shrugs and says he’s not worried: “I only get $199 a month. I probably won’t feel it much.”

 

Little Debbies and K-cups

A recent USDA study indicates SNAP participants spend $15 million a year on junk food. For tax-payers putting potatoes and rice in their own grocery carts, that’s a lot to swallow.

When shoppers at a Brookhaven, Miss., grocery store remarked that an EBT customer’s purchase—a bakery-decorated cake and a case of soft drinks—wasn’t part of any necessary food group, the clerk became defensive. “What you consider food may not be what she considers food,” he responded.

The USDA apparently agrees. A one-page summary explaining why the federal government allows SNAP participants to purchase Doritos and Little Debbies has this surprising statement: “No clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy.” Another source suggested a scan of grocery receipts for an “F” (indicating a food item) to see what other extras SNAP will purchase. Among the big reveals? K-cups for Keurig coffee machines.

The USDA does have a “People’s Garden” located near its big office buildings. There, while Mariah Carey singing “a hero lies in you” plays over an amplifier, guests stroll pea gravel paths through beds of kale, cilantro, and even hard-to-grow asparagus. A basket displays what $10 -dollars of SNAP benefits can buy that day at the market—a mound of radishes and some impressive green leaf lettuce. But back at the shelter on 2nd Street, Alphonso Harris isn’t likely to use his SNAP dollars to purchase fresh lettuce: “I like the microwavable stuff, things I can do easy.”

It’s easy to talk about Coke rather than kale, or K-cups and steaks (yes, they qualify, right along with lobster and shrimp), but the real abuse may not be so obvious: Recipients are the ones being harmed when the temporary relief intended by SNAP morphs into the brazen buying of nonessentials. Such programs become the opposite of real compassion. —K.H.

Kim Henderson

Kim Henderson

Kim Henderson is a graduate of the WJI Mid-Career Course.

Comments

  • Fin's picture
    Fin
    Posted: Sat, 09/16/2017 05:40 pm

    The sad truth about this story, and just about every other welfare/recovery story coming out of Washington, DC, is this: Most, if not all of our politicians are afraid to rein in "entitlements." It's amazing how few are willing to say "No" to any "victim" who wins popular approval, no matter the cost. All as a result of an increased sense of dependency on the part of an increasing number of Americans.

    This sad state of affairs reminds me of Rome. If memory serves me, fear of the masses resulted in unsustainable welfare - one of the main reasons for Rome's fall.

  • Resa Yamamoto
    Posted: Mon, 09/18/2017 01:46 am

    I am glad to read your article on the Food Stamp program.  I can't help but wonder how much of our ever increasing drug problem in this country is related to the EBT card and ability to get cash back or  to get cash at ATMs to support unhealthy lifestyle choices.  Seems that creating a card -like a gift card, that has no cash back option might help to curb the abuses that persist.   

  • rick1056
    Posted: Sat, 09/23/2017 09:50 pm

    I'm a working man since I was 16. Not all those years have been financially stable or profitable. I've tried to be a good christian following Christ's examples. I live in New Jersey near one of the nations poorest cities, that government has poured billions of dollars and programs into...Camden, NJ 08104. for many years the city got worse and worse, but recently the economic upswing has begun a slowly progressing progress that has shined hope into many of the faces of the residents of that city. However, having said this.....I still see many of the abuses of the systems and programs meant to help people become a for profit means of fleecing the very people they're meant to help. One such abuse is when merchants in small corner  stores and conveniences stores take a person's EBT card and give them cigarettes or rolling papers or other non food products in exchange for the money on their cards. This and other types of abuse of the systems make and take money meant for good and turn it into filthy lucre for the taking. there are many merchants who use the system correctly but many greedy, money hungry that fleece the people in the system and those who pay for the programs with their hard earned tax dollars. Even after being reported and turned in for the abuse the system seems to just turn a deaf ear and nothing seems to happen to these abusers...whereand when will it all end???