Normal 0 false false false

Marvin George just wants a job.

He sits on the worn orange couch in his low-income apartment -most of his belongings are in storage. His walls are bare except for ablack-and-white photo of him as a toddler that hangs above his head.

Back then, he had no worries, he says quietly. But these days, ashe talks about his life from his small, one-room residence, worry etches his55-year-old face.

"A year from now I'll probably be looking for a bridge toput my address on," he says. "My 401K won't last that long."

His $25,000 in retirement is what George has been living on forthe past three years - that and the food stamps he receives. But even thatassistance has been cut from $200 to just $18 a month as he continues to searchfor work - sometimes putting out as many as five job applications a day.

With little schooling, limited computer skills and an age that iscreeping toward retirement, no one wants him.

There are 47 million Americans on food stamps. George is one ofthem.

 

***

On a recent Tuesday, Rep. Tim Huelskamp stood in front of ameeting room at Lyons State Bank, addressing a group of farmers and small-townresidents about what is happening in Washington.

The topic of conversation was no different from other town-hallmeetings the Republican congressman had that day. One resident asked what itwould take to impeach President Barack Obama - a view echoed by a few others asthe hour wore on. Some stressed resentment regarding the president's healthcare reform and too much regulation.

A few others wondered when a farm bill would pass - a second yearof wheat had been drilled into the ground without compromise on anylegislation.

Yet, even hailing from the wheat state of Kansas - which received $930 million in farmsubsidies in 2012 - Huelskamp hasn't supported versions of the farm bill duringhis time in Congress. Wednesday he voted no again, along with the other three Kansas representatives,on the most current proposal that is expected to pass Congress Monday.

"I think it is wrong to continue to pay healthy, able adultsfood stamps," Huelskamp said, which brought a few comments of agreementfrom those in attendance after the meeting. "I think we should requiresome work, to look for a job."

While his own family has received thousands in government payments thanks to the farmbill, Huelskamp hasn't been timid about expressing his concerns about what hecalls an assistance program that "is in desperate need of reform."

Despite its farm bill moniker, the 80-year-old legislation ismore than just a bill affecting the nation's agriculture producers, Huelskampstresses.

SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, makesup 80 percent of the act - a section he says has grown fivefold in the past 13years, from $15 billion to $76 billion today, according to the U.S. Departmentof Agriculture.

His stance illustrates the sharp divide in Congress - evenwithin the Republican Party. Some see food stamps as a safety net for thecountry's poorest, a large number of whom are children. Others, eyeing thenation's budget woes, want it on the chopping block, arguing that with theprogram reaching a record high last year, too many Americans are abusing thesystem.

Thus, for the past few years, the farm bill has fallen victim to Washington gridlock,which is far from how things were done in 1973 when Kansas Republican BobDole and Democrat George McGovern sat at the table and reached a compromise toput food stamps and farm programs together.

 

***

One in seven Americans depends on food stamps to make sure thereis enough food on the table - an increase of 123 percent in the past decade.

In Kansas,about 318,000 people - roughly 176,400 adults and 142,500 children - receivefood stamps - 11 percent of the population. The number of Kansans on foodstamps has grown by about 100,000 since the recession started in 2008.

On top of the 318,000 on food stamps, another 115,000 areconsidered food-insecure, meaning their consistent access to adequate food islimited by either lack of money or other resources at various times, accordingto Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks.

While the system continues to grow, so does the disconnectbetween those on food stamps and those who are not, said Tonya Hornback, a lifecoach at New Beginnings, a Hutchinson nonprofit that provides temporary housing to displacedresidents.

Hornback said the people she assists want to work. They want toget out of poverty and the situation they are in.

She has clients who walk nearly 30 blocks to get to a night-shiftjob. She has watched single mothers struggle to get food on the table. She hasclients making minimum wage who still qualify for SNAP.

The full-time jobs aren't there, either, she adds. Jobavailability in recent months has slanted toward part-time work in low-wageindustries.

"There are people out there who don't know what it is liketo live on nothing," Hornback said.

There are cases of fraud - something Hornback didn't dismiss. Oneof her clients even admitted to The News that he has sold his vision card tobuy drugs.

He, however, said he has been clean for about a year.

Still, it's enough to create an arguing point by politicians thatthe program is out of control, even though, as Hornback assesses, it's far lessthan the racketeering that goes on in other government programs, as well as onWall Street.

"Give me a system that doesn't have someone who abusesit," she said.

Ken Thompson, director of fraud investigations for the KansasDepartment of Children and Families, said that the USDA typically estimatesfraud at 1 percent. In Kansas,that equals about $5 million, he said.

"Even if it is just one percent, that is a huge example offraud," he said, adding the state has made a big push to crack down onfraudulent activities since Gov. Sam Brownback took office.

The state has beefed up efforts by adding employees. Last fiscalyear, the state issued more than $941,000 in civil judgments. So far, forfiscal 2014, the agency already has issued more than a $1 million in civilpenalties for fraudulent food stamp activity as the state moves forward withits "more robust, anti-fraud agenda," Thompson said.

"It is all driven by the fact that this is the right thingto do in this world of shrinking federal funds," he said.

Advocates for those in need, however, say such instances are ararity.

"We don't see any of the things that support themyths," said Deborah Snapp, executive director of Catholic Social Servicesin Dodge City."We see hardworking people that just want to take care of their kids, justwant to be able to meet their needs. We don't see people taking advantage ofthe system at all."

 

***

For most Americans, a $10 or $20 decrease in the monthly foodbudget would be absorbed with little thought. But the record number ofAmericans relying on food stamps saw cuts of about that much in November.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act had given food stamprecipients a temporary boost starting in 2009. That expired Nov. 1.

While the enhancement never was meant to last once the economypicked up, the cuts have been tough, said Gary Johnson. The 33-year-old Hutchinson resident liveswith his wife, Amanda, and their two children - Taryn, 5, and Baylee, 2 - in a homeowned by Interfaith Housing. He makes $9.89 an hour working as a head custodianfor USD 308 - but it is the only income, besides food assistance, that he hasto support his family.

Amanda, 25, who has an associate's degree from Hutchinson Community College, stays home with the children. She saidthat after the November program cuts, they now receive $380 a month forgroceries - a $100 decrease in assistance, or roughly 18 meals.

"It scared me," said Amanda, who keeps a tight budget on thefamily's expenses as a stay-at-home mom - even making her own laundry soap tosave money. "I worry about money a lot."

The Johnsons' overall budget has little room for a $100adjustment. She had no choice, she said, but to make the money stretch.

"Our money for food stamps is for food stamps; we don't just havethe money to throw on food."

While the economy may be somewhat improving, however, demand forfood stamps remain at record levels, including in Kansas.

"The program is not broke - the economy is broke," saidBarry Flinchbaugh, an agricultural economist and policy expert at Kansas State University.

He said Kansas Sen. Dole, who was influential in farm billlegislation in his years in office, did speak out about the farm bill debate.

"Several weeks ago he took his fellow Republicans to task onthe food stamp thing," Flinchbaugh said. "He said, 'Where is yourcompassion?' "

At the time, Republicans sought $40 billion in cuts to SNAP overa 10-year period.  

"That means starving kids," Flinchbuagh said. "Youcan throw (the mother and father) off, but you aren't going to starve the kids,not in the US of A. He really got after them."

 

***

Maybe Republican leaders took their elder statesman to heart:SNAP cuts are minimal compared to previous versions of the bill. The Housepassed legislation Wednesday that ultimately would cut about $800 million ayear - or $8 billion over 10 years. The reduction would equal roughly 1 percentof the program's record $79.6 billion in spending for the budget year.

The Senate is expected to vote on the farm bill Monday.

However, for Huelskamp, the cuts weren't deep enough. He and the Kansas delegation votedagainst the measure. Huelskamp said last week at his town-hall meeting he wouldprobably vote against the farm bill because there was no SNAP reform.

However, how to solve the problem of the growing number of Americans on food stampsis something for which Huelskamp doesn't have a definite answer.

"It's a bigger picture than food stamps," he said afterthe Lyonsmeeting. "Under the Obama administration, the economy hasn'timproved."

He offered statistics, such as 24.1 million Americans are lookingfor full-time jobs. He said one solution might be to let states run more of theprogram, but added that either way SNAP needs restructuring.

"We are ending the greedy and targeting the needy," hesaid, quoting Bob Dole. "How many of the 47 million are in need, I don'tknow. USDA doesn't even know."

Hornback, however, whose job takes her into the heart of theissue, sees a different picture - one that isn't black and white.

Those making $7.25 an hour will have a hard time getting ahead,she said.

"It's a vicious circle," she said. "I'm not sayingassistance should support everyone for the rest of their life. But make itconsistent.

"Like any assistance program, support them for a while, help themget the traits they need to take care of themselves and slowly back off. If Idon't teach you to cook, how do I teach you to budget your food?"

Could the system be more efficient? Certainly, said Mariah TannerEhmke, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Wyoming.For instance, she said, there could be a greater educational component in theprogram to help people get out of the system.

Nevertheless, she notes, the program works for the purpose itserves. Most on food stamps don't want to be on them - and they aren't braggingabout using a vision card for groceries.

"It isn't perfect, but it isn't broke," said Ehmke, who grew up inrural Stafford County. "I've been to countries wherethere is no social welfare program for families. In West Africa, instead of having food pantries, you have children goingout at dusk picking up leftover food that wealthy people set on their steps."

 

***

As for George, he says he will work anywhere and is willing tolearn. Daily he sits at a computer in his apartment complex, looking for jobsand submitting applications. He also is trying to teach himself to type. He has ajob interview at a local collection agency - but typing is a requirement.

Still, he continues his search - confident some employer willwant him.

"The cuts in food stamps hurt," he said. "But if Ihad a job, it would be OK."

st1:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}