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Flagler’s Poverty Gap: Boosting Food Stamps Enrollment–and More Accurate Numbers

| November 30, 2010

Awareness alert: They don't even use coupons anymore. It's all debit cards now.

Last spring Bruce Page, the CEO at Intracoastal Bank, was having conversations around the community about the county’s growing poverty problem. Those conversations led to greater awareness of a little-known poverty gap here: far fewer people eligible for food stamps actually apply for them. For a variety of reasons most would recognize if they were in that situation—embarrassment, denial, fear of being stigmatized—there’s a reluctance to apply for social assistance, and that reluctance is compounding hardships at a time when economic strains are creating a new generation of poor Americans: As of the end of August in Florida, 2.75 million people were participating in the food stamps program, an increase of 521,000 people (or 23 percent) in one year.

If fewer people apply for the benefits they’re due, the immediate results are twofold: Foremost, people may be going hungry unnecessarily. But a significant amount of federal dollars, which would have the effect of a rolling stimulus, are also being lost to the local economy. Look at it this way: If $1 million more in federal food stamps was spent in Flagler County, that’s the equivalent of 20 full-time, $30,000-a-year jobs with benefits. It doesn’t quite work out that way: food stamps are overwhelmingly spent at chain grocery stores, where most of the money is channeled out of the county and into shareholder dividends. But some of those dollars trickle down and stay local. And the benefit of putting more food on people’s tables is unquestionable.

Alicia Casas of the United Way of Volusia-Flagler began coordinating an effort to systematically reduce the poverty gap. A hunger and poverty summit was organized. A proposal was formulated: hire one worker, full time, to go around the community and enroll eligible people for food stamps. That proposal is costly: $114,000 for two years’ salary and benefits. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) agreed to match, dollar for dollar, $57,000—if the coalition raised the other $57,000.

On Tuesday, the coalition launched that fund-raising effort, with a web site and a marketing campaign under the banner of the “Mobile Benefits Program.” If it’s successful, a Flagler County worker will be hired through Jacksonville’s Second Harvest Food Bank, armed with a laptop and a portable scanner, and sent through the county to set up client meetings through churches, food banks and schools and, in half-hour transactions, get more people enrolled in the food stamps program, technically referred to now as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (since there are no food stamps anymore: transactions are conducted by debit cards). Second Harvest hopes to permanently underwrite the position with grants after the initial two years, though presumably by then the number of people needing assistance will have declined considerably.

“This program has an incredible amount of accountability,” Jim Chynoweth, the distribution director at Second Harvest, said, “and so for potential donors who are wondering, is this a wise investment, I know that there’s a lot of numbers and return on investment etc., but because again of the great system that DCF has put in place, we will be able to know every single month how many applications were submitted, how many were approved, and what the dollar value of those benefits awarded is. And so with a very high degree, probably an unprecedented degree for a program, we’ll be able to say, this is what was accomplished on a month by month basis.”

That accountability is not in question, once the program gets going. But the coalition’s numbers are: it appears that the coalition is significantly inflating the dollar amounts that are going unclaimed locally (by almost half), and is doing so through sloppy accounting rather than malicious intent. Either way, the sloppiness, besides fronting inaccurate numbers, risks damaging the program’s credibility and putting its otherwise commendable aim under a cloud, especially when there’s no need to be inflating an already serious local problem.

The figures the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce’s Doug Baxter has been repeating since spring—the figures that appear on the Mobile Benefits Program’s website and in its plan of action is that $720,000 a month, or $8.6 million a year in benefits, are going unclaimed. The way that figure was achieved is based on the 3,000 people the coalition estimates are eligible but not receiving food stamps now: multiply 3,000 by $240, the average monthly food stamp award and you get $720,000.

Except that that’s not the average monthly award for an individual food stamp recipient. It’s the average household award (actually, $247 in Florida). The average individual monthly award in Florida, according to the latest full-year figures available from the Department of Agriculture (for 2009), was $127. So the most that could be recouped per month, based on 3,000 eligible recipients, is not $720,000, but $381,000. (See the Department of Agriculture’s figures for households here and individuals here).

The correct figures were no stranger to the coalition: they were used during the first hunger summit, on June 22, according to the minutes of that meeting (when the monthly loss in unclaimed benefits was put at $360,000). Somewhere along the way, someone got messy and somehow almost doubled the figure. The error stuck, and has unfortunately been used more sensationally than accurately to drum up support for the mobile benefits program.

The coalition furthers another inaccuracy when it characterizes the effects of a single new hire on the unclaimed benefits. “As it stands right now approximately $8.6 million in Flagler County is not being used because we don’t have someone on the streets,” Baxter says without qualification. In fact, a single person will not dent the unclaimed amount—the accurate amount—by more than 15 percent at best.

By the coalition’s own plan of action, the new hire would be expected to get 720 applications completed in a year, 444 of which would be successful, or 37 per month (that’s going by the state’s eligibility rate). That would generate a total of $692,640 over the course of a year.

The plan of action appears to get that figure right, as it applies the individual average award to the successful applications. In fact, it gets even that figure partly wrong, too, because it assumes that benefits would be drawn for 12 months. In reality, the average food stamp benefit is drawn for nine months. So the more accurate figure of federal dollars drawn down over the course of a year, based on 444 successful applications, would be closer to $520,000. The overall effect on the local economy, or on the number of people whose tables would be enriched, would be significantly smaller than originally advertised.

Ironically, the more accurate number accentuate the problem of hunger in Flagler County—assuming that there are, in fact, 11,446 people on food assistance now (according to the Department of Children and Families) and 3,000 people eligible but not receiving benefits (those figures could not be independently verified).

Sandy Mullen, who chairs the United Way Women’s Initiative of Flagler County and is donating her PR and outreach services to the mobile benefits program—and was not involved in gathering the coalition’s numbers—said late Tuesday she would want to project the most accurate numbers possible regardless. Earlier in the day, at the launch meeting of the coalition, Mullens presented the program’s new web site and stressed of the program, quite accurately: “This is a band-aid. This is not the cure. The cure is employment. The cure is jobs. So when we leave here I hope that we all strive to help the immediate situation by the mobile benefits program and get the money that we need to get someone on the streets to help our needy, but more importantly, let’s talk to our government officials and please let them know that job creation is extremely vital to our community, because we have working poor, and we have people that are not the faces of poverty that you and I knew when we were kids, when we were in our 20s, 30s. This is a new face. These are my friends. These are my business associates, and it breaks my heart, and that’s where the answer is. The answer is in job creation.”

There were no local government officials at the meeting, though the idea was pitched to the Flagler County Commission in early October. Coalition members included the United Way of Volusia-Flagler Counties, the Center for Business Excellence, DCF, Second Harvest and the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce and Affiliates.

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8 Responses for “Flagler’s Poverty Gap: Boosting Food Stamps Enrollment–and More Accurate Numbers”

  1. Anonymous says:

    To bring back the jobs that our elected officials approved for outsourcing, this administration needs to star ASAP Taxing Imports. How could we expect to have jobs if all we buy is made in China, Taiwan, Korea, Pakistan and/or Japan?
    The dumb and distorted excuse given by government and corporations that took those manufacturing plants overseas is because they have to compete in price. Bull! The real reason is that these outsourcing of our jobs corporate giants can hire workers overseas at slavery wages (how about $140/month standing 8 hours day) and pollute their environments without monitoring. Then sell those goods back to us in the USA at the same prices that would have been if manufactured here by fair wage paid and unionized American workers under environmental monitoring. The real reason is greed as these corporate giants then can rip outrageous profits pocketing the difference. Yes maybe at some of those corporate giant stores me may pay a TV set or other electronics a couple of dollars cheaper but what is better..? To have lots of cheap and low quality stuff on the stores and being jobless we can’t afford anyway or buy the same item made in the USA, (once import tax is applied and we recover our manufacturing) pay the couple of dollars more but we can afford it, as we have again the jobs that produce our goods!
    Can anyone see this new trend of all these Private Equity Investment Groups/Hedge Funds buying out our manufacturing and industries and dismantling here and setting shop overseas?
    At least we saw a couple the Palm Coast. We are still the greatest consumer society in the world and the one reason is because until 2006 we made enough decent wages to be able to afford goods. No more. Can anyone see that we can produce all that we consume? Ask Mr. Henry Ford that may be turning on his grave about what is taking place now with our industry
    They make us believe that taxing imports will make China mad…and sooo? That we owe China these trillions …and sooo? In reality China needs us, not as the bill of lies special interest shove down our throats. If we tax imports and cut all the tax incentives and breaks given to these giant corporations many of them multinationals with overseas plants, we will create millions of jobs and will pay our debt to China overnight! Tax imports and reward with tax incentives and tax breaks to all that bring back their manufacturing plants to the USA.
    Stop the lies about our workers being lazy, irresponsible, dumb, untrained or overpaid plus the alleged liability of being unionized, as is Bull too! Without unions in our labor force then we have slavery and non existent middle society. Our Free Trade as become distorted and a joke, as is only one way… In, as our trade deficit shows. They even use our hard earned dollars to build like in the Jacksonville Port a new modern maritime terminal to accommodate better and more container loaded ships from China arriving with more import goods yet. No wonder we have become now the Unemployed States of America (USA).
    What about starting to look for real Made in the USA goods while shopping….at least a good start

  2. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Anonymous, it’s your kind of thinking that got us into this mess.

  3. PC MAN says:

    I wonder what lawabidingcitizen’s plan would be ? I bet it involves tax cuts for the richest of the richest.
    Wages for the average guy have stagnated over the past thirty years while the wealthiest have seen their bank accounts balloon. I’m always amused when suckers like lawabidingcitizen listen to millionaires like Beck and Limbaugh go on and on about how not taxing them will be a stimulant for the economy. Trickled down and pissed on are the same thing.

  4. Nancy says:

    Whether these numbers are accurate or not I would like to commend these fine people that are trying to make a difference for the struggling families in our community! Bravo for making the efforts!!! Perhaps if we stopped trying to find fault and instead tried to help these families they wouldn’t be struggling as much as they are.

  5. david frank says:

    Pc Man: is Obama, Reid and the rest of the crew of crooks in Washington millionaires? Don’t forget that the top 1% wage earners pay 40% of all income tax, the next 9% pay 30% of the the total tax bill, so that meand that the bottom wage earners pay pay less than 30%, are you sure you want to get rid of that group, if so you are not too bright. It is always the have nots the lazy and the not to bright that want to tax the people who produce jobs and start a business so the rest of us can work. I have never got a job from a poor person.

  6. Gervais says:

    @david: Republicans who claim that returning tax rates for the rich to Clinton-era levels will kill jobs must have forgotten that those same rates created more than 22.5 million jobs in less than eight years — the most jobs ever created under one administration.

    If we want to create more jobs, there needs to be more economic demand. Plain and simple. We need people — consumers with a growing income and money to spend — to go out and buy stuff. Demand just doesnʼt happen if we give cuts to the rich who arenʼt actively spending that money. In fact, one of the major reasons our economy was hit so hard was because of the shift of income from the middle class to the very wealthy. The middle class is the economic engine of our nation.

    Eliminating the Bush tax cuts for the very rich would save taxpayers more than two-thirds of a trillion dollars over the next decade. Thinking ahead, that makes a pretty large dent in the long-term budget deficit.

  7. devrie says:

    David, are you suggesting that returning the tax rates to what they were for the wealthy will make them poor? Have you seen the profits lately? Do you realize offshoring, wage squeezes, and tax loopholes help these profits regardless of tax cuts or not? How many taxes did Exon Mobile pay in 2009? A lot of big companies don’t even pay taxes, yet they get tax credits from the Government.

    We’re so quick snatch a crappy benefit from the working poor, but we’re so eager to save profits for the wealthy because we sit like little bullied children with our mouths open for the droppings while lauding the efforts of these companies. They don’t care about us. They’ll make more jobs with tax cuts, but not here. They won’t increase wages for millions of Americans who have difficultites affording to work.

    What’s most amazing, is that the people who are fighting for the wealthy are hard working Americans who must not realize that their finances will soon be in peril if we continue this path of avoidance.

  8. david frank says:

    devire: I was talking about single tax payers not companies. If you increase the tax rate on companies they pass it on to us or move to a place with lower tax rates, taxing is not the problem, it is the spending by the crew of crooks in Washington.. GM had a big tax break, such as you talk about and what happen to them, the goverment, the union and poor management ran them out of business. The goverment bailed them out with our money, management was changed and the union made a killing and is still receiving the high wages and benefits that helped break GM. If you keep the tax base low people will spend the savings better then the crew of crooks in Washington will.

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