Tag Archives: SNAP

Government Policies and Inflation are Making the Poor Even Poorer

San Juan   There was something to celebrate on the first day of a new decade.  President Trump for only the second time in his term of office did NOT tweet.  What a relief! The other time was the day after the Mueller investigation report was made public.  This time, who knows?  He may have been kidnapped for the day by a roving band of pirates off the coast of Florida.  Maybe they came from Puerto Rico in protest of the lack of support for their hurricane recovery because of, as some may remember, his earlier claim that the island territory was “in the middle of the ocean” and too far away to help.  Certainly, almost all the restaurants in San Juan were closed on New Year’s Day, so the wait staff could have been the ones manning the boats.  I’m not sure.  I’m just offering some alternative facts.

The war talk and chest thumping over Iran pulling the strings on a US embassy takeover in Baghdad did decrease as the protestors withdrew after the Iraqi government promised to support a resolution asking the US to withdraw troops from that country.  On the other hand, the war on the poor continued to accelerate as the Department of Agriculture doubled down on its plan to take another 700,000 people off of food stamps.  The Secretary claimed it is all about getting them to work without reckoning with the fact that most recipients are already working, they just aren’t making enough to adequately and healthily feed their families.  The New York Times Upshot column noted that when lower income families ate better it saved $1400 a year per person in health care costs and had led to reductions in Medicaid spending in a number of states.  Does the administration care or is this all about a body count?

Even as many bemoan the rising gap between the rich and the poor and the federal government pushes to make the poor even poorer, other studies, including a recent one from a team of researchers connected to Columbia University and the Groundwork Collaborative have found that they are already poorer than previous statistics had determined.  Reported in The Hill, they found that “Real income for low-income Americans fell more than 7 percent between 2004 and 2018, in part because of rising costs for items and services purchased by those Americans.”

Inflation in goods that are already more highly priced for poor families is under-reported, making the income gap experienced by lower income families more pronounced.  Seven percent may not sound like much, but in a country the size of the United States it means that,

Using their inflation measure, the paper’s authors estimate that 3.2 million more people would fall below the poverty line, bringing the nation’s total to 41.4 million. The U.S. population in 2018 was about 327 million.

It seems hardly the time to intensify the war on the poor, when they are already getting poorer.  What would it take to get the Trump administration to finally negotiate a peace in this war and withdraw its bureaucratic troops at USDA, DHHS, DHS, and the other agencies?  It’s past time!

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Apps for SNAP with Both Green and Yellow Lights Flashing

New Orleans   An internet application that would allow food stamp recipients participating in SNAP, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program as the government calls it now, seems like a great idea.  A Brooklyn-based startup called Propel created an app that allows recipients to check on their smartphones and see how much of their benefits they have spent and how much they have left.  The app also has coupons for food stores, supposedly offering more nutritional products, and in some states has job postings.   Sounds like a winner for lower income families at first blush, so green light and go for it.

There’s no question we need the techies to start thinking of the best ways to provide better access and information to people receiving services, especially low-and-moderate income families.  The food stamp program is a great place to start. Over forty-four million people participate in the program now so this is a big-time operation.  Of those recipients about 44% or twenty million are children so the potential pool for smartphones giving access to such information is about twenty-four million.  Maybe half that number actually have smartphones, although that may be a kind estimate given the persistence of the digital divide, but being liberal that would mean perhaps twelve million have smartphones now.

Propel claims it has one-million users.  In a study with Duke University, Propel found that on average SNAP recipients spent more than 80 percent of their SNAP benefits within the first nine days, completely exhausting the sum by day 21. But when given an in-app tool that showed them a weekly budget instead of the entire balance, users stretched their monthly balance by two days—about six meals a month.

An article in The New York Times paints them as the good guys and a Xerox $6 billion spinoff named Conduent as the bad guy bullies.  The Propel app is a “skin” that is built on top of platforms provided by Conduent and other governmental subcontractors of state governments that provide Electronic Benefit Transfers to benefit recipients.   Most of the food stamp delivery systems are provided by two companies, Conduent and Fidelity National Information Systems known as FIS, a $9 billion company.  Conduent has contracts with twenty-two states that I could identify from governmental information.  FIS has most of the rest of them.  Propel tells the Times that FIS is no problem, but Conduent is.  Additionally, Conduent has rolled out a competing app that gives basic information in South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah with more information coming.

Looking at the state contract specifics for Conduent, I found that in several states their web design allowed access to a wide range of benefits from TANF to energy assistance and more, which many of us for years have felt is the Holy Grail necessary to get increased maximum feasible participation in benefit access.   Because Conduent has state contracts it is also regulated, which Propel and its competitors are not.  As much as my kneejerk response was to root for the little guy versus the big boys, a yellow light is slowing me down even as I was flooring the car on green.

Partially, it’s the business model.  Propel can’t sell data obviously since food stamp recipients are protected by an array of confidentiality laws at the federal level, so they deserve no special applause that is inferred in the Times’ piece, since none of these primary contractors can either.  The Propel business model is advertising, coupons from the food stores, and job postings.  I find none of that reassuring. Frankly, the income sources for the company need to be regulated as well when the potential to exploit these vulnerable populations lies behind every one of these sources.  Equally obvious is that state governments should be insisting that its contractors like Conduent and FIS should be providing the kinds of features that Propel is promoting to recipients free and clear now that Propel has shown their value.  Propel may not like other businesses playing hardball, but I don’t like government not stepping up to its full responsibilities to serve their citizens, especially lower income families.

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