July 27, 2016
July 27, 2016
Ohio is a state where too many people are hungry. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ohio has the seventh-highest rate of food insecurity in the country, with almost 17 percent of Ohioans classified as “food insecure,” or having trouble putting food on the table. When it comes to the designation of “very low food security,” which represents having to skip meals because of inability to pay for them, Ohio does even worse, with only Arkansas and Missouri topping Ohio’s 7.5 percent rate.
One of the main tools available to combat food insecurity in Ohio is the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a 2.5 billion dollar enterprise that serves more than 1.6 million Ohioans every month. SNAP is a federal program that is administered by state governments, so the state of Ohio has ample oversight of the program. Ohio Auditor of State David Yost recently released the results of an audit of the state’s food stamp program. It found less than 1 percent of benefits were distributed incorrectly, which is a low error rate compared to operations of a similar size in the public or private sectors.
The audit carefully reviewed practices that raised red flags and made thoughtful recommendations about how to improve the IT system and employee training to lower the suspicion rate. It flagged $28.7 million in out-of-state spending, but found most of this was just people driving across the Ohio river to the Walmart in Charleston, the Costco in Covington or a similar trip at the borders of the state. The audit suggested further investigation of the remainder, to determine if employment (temporary construction-related employment, which may take people out of state, for example) or other factors were causing this anomaly.
This was not a performance or financial audit. It offered suggestions of how to take a good system and improve it. That is good business practice. Instead of emphasizing improvement of the current system, however, the report was publicized by the auditor’s office as evidence of serious fraud and abuse.
Based on these modest findings, Auditor Yost traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify on what he characterizes as “structural weaknesses in the federal [food stamp] program” to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture. But this is not what his audit found. His staff found a sound program with low error rates, and they made good recommendations on how to make it even better. Leveraging this to cast aspersions on this important program suggests motives other than assuring good government practices.
Instead of attacking a needed program, state leaders should be trying to address hunger. Of far greater relevance than the audit to Ohioans struggling with food insecurity is the millions of dollars in SNAP benefits the Kasich administration leaves on the table in Washington D.C. each year by not requesting a waiver of time limits in all eligible places. In July of each year, states face the decision of how many counties to request SNAP time-limit waivers for. Ohio could request waivers of time limits in nine cities and most of Appalachia. In recent years, Governor Kasich has declined to requests waivers in many eligible counties, in spite of high rates of hunger in Ohio. As a result, there’s less money in grocery stores in needy neighborhoods and circulating in local economies.
Food insecurity is too important of an issue to play politics with. Rather than using Ohio’s food assistance programs as a way to score political points, public officials should be spending their time working on solutions for reducing food insecurity among Ohio’s residents.
Wendy is Policy Matters senior project director; Robert is a master of public policy candidate at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.
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