First off, there is no buffet.
"I think this is where the myths cause us grief; some people think that there's some kind of smorgasbord," said Greg Kunz, deputy administrator for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Division of Welfare. "Some may think that all of the taxpayers' money is sitting out there and that there's some kind of rush to the table."
Though the Food Stamp Program--known in most other states as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program but still called "food stamps" in Idaho--is in heavy crossfire on Capitol Hill, with some lawmakers advocating benefit cuts to as many as 6 million Americans while others are insisting that SNAP recipients be subject to drug testing, Idaho's program is experiencing cost-cutting efficiencies and greater fraud mitigation amid a period of unprecedented growth.
In a series of wide-ranging discussions with IDHW employees, several myths were quickly debunked. Boise Weekly learned that:
• Well over half of the recipients are children;
• Adult recipients are expected to work the equivalent of 30 hours per week, meaning many food stamp participants are the working poor;
• If recipients are not working, they participate in training to secure employment;
• There are few exceptions to the must-work rule, including the elderly, handicapped or one parent who is caring for a child 6 years old or younger;
• While the number of food stamp recipients has skyrocketed, incidents of potential fraud have been stationary;
• The majority of fraud cases have been detected not through referrals from the public, but internal data mining probing for inaccuracies or inconsistencies.
But any conversation regarding food stamps in Idaho usually begins and ends with a chart that graphs an explosion of households accessing the nutrition assistance program.
"Here's the overall level of our caseload," said IDHW Research Analyst Supervisor Shane Leach, handing BW a jaw-dropping graph outlining food stamp usage from January 1994 to the present. Participation hovered at just fewer than 40,000 households until 2008, when the numbers began climbing.
"And it's important to note that this represents the number of [household] cases, and we average 2.5 people per case," Leach said.
Russ Barron, statewide administrator of all of IDHW's self-reliance programs, looked at the numbers and said: "And what you're looking at is the recession."
Idaho food stamp households peaked in January 2012 at approximately 110,000 and have since dipped to just less than 100,000.
"So that's just under 230,000 people in Idaho," said Barron.
"Before, we used to be between 53 [percent] and 60 percent of Idahoans who were eligible accessed the Food Stamp Program. In 2010, that jumped to 81 percent. That was huge for us," he said. "And that's all about the recession driving them into our offices. Before, even though people were eligible, they turned to other resources: churches and food banks."
As of July, 224,477 Idahoans were receiving assistance through the Food Stamp Program, representing 14.2 percent of the population.
But there is a wide disparity of participation when comparing Idaho's counties. For example, in July, while only 4.8 percent of Blaine County's population participated in the Food Stamp Program, nearly 22 percent of Canyon County's households were receiving food assistance, the highest in the state. High participation was also registered in Shoshone (18.6 percent) Payette (18.1 percent) and Lewis (18 percent) counties. In Ada County, 11.6 percent of the population, totalling 46,550 participants, accesses food stamps.
But as more of Idaho's working poor began streaming into Health and Welfare's 19 offices across the state, with many asking for assistance for the first time in their lives, something had to give. The same recession responsible for less food on household tables was also responsible for layoffs throughout state government departments, including Health and Welfare.
"At all the offices across the state, and especially this office, there were days when people were lined up to the walls, all the chairs were taken and people were sitting on the floor," said Julie Hammon, Benefits Program bureau chief for Health and Welfare's Self-Reliance Program. "But at the same time, we had cutbacks. We had to start thinking about changing our operations and, quite honestly, doing more with less. We had to do something."
Hammon stood in the center of a revamped workplace on Westgate Drive off of Boise's Fairview Avenue--by far the busiest Health and Welfare office in the state.
"The volume we have here is huge," she said. "But it's important to point out that anyone can walk into any office in the state and get assistance."
Boise Weekly watched as a steady stream of men, women and children poured through the doors of the Westgate office--Hammon said the foot traffic is pretty consistent--each approaching a desk to ask about food stamps, child support or medical coverage for their children. But instead of being handed a clipboard and a large packet of applications, the Health and Welfare employees were anxious to engage with the potential applicants.
"I lost my job."
"I can't feed my children."
"I'm struggling with a spouse."
That's how many of the conversations began, with Health and Welfare employees asking a series of open-ended questions, long before determining anyone's eligibility.
Soon after, the potential applicant was steered toward a private conversation at a high-walled cubicle or confidential office.
"We're really trying to understand your situation," said Hammon. "We'll start asking for specific information regarding your family, income and expenses. We really refined this process; it's called an 'informed choice.'"
In perhaps the biggest improvement to the process, approximately 70 percent of food stamp applicants have their information verified the same day, their benefits are fully explained and most walk out of the office with a debit card, which they'll use to access the food stamp funds. Many of the recipients will be able to access the funds to buy food the very next morning.
"When somebody walks into our office, they're usually in need of food. They don't need food in 30 days, they need it tomorrow," said Hammon.
But it wasn't too long ago that most Idaho food stamp recipients would have to wait a month or more before getting help. Lori Wolff, IDHW deputy administrator for the Division of Welfare, remembers it all too well.
"I recall going into our field offices and the process would go something like this: Somebody would say, 'I want to apply for food stamps.' They would be handed an application, give it to a clerk and then an interview would be scheduled seven to 10 days later. The person would come back a week later, wait for about 40 minutes, talk to a decision-maker in a 45-minute interview, and then we would give them a list of materials we would need. The applicant would mail them in within five to seven days later. We're already 20 days later. We would process it within five days after that and, best case, we're right at about 30 days."
And things were even worse in some other states. For example, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the state of Texas after some applicants said they waited as long as six months for food stamp assistance. Texas responded by throwing more state employees at the backlog.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has approximately 277 self-reliance specialists working with Idahoans, approximately 30 percent of them allocated to working on the Food Stamp Program. But the department, due to recession cutbacks, is working with fewer specialists at more than double the workload.
"We really had to look at getting rid of any administrative process that was unnecessary," said Wolff. "We looked at statewide redundancies and things that just weren't effective. We had to streamline the program."
Kunz, with the Division of Welfare, has worked with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare for 30-plus years, and had high praise for the changes.
"I started as an eligibility worker and I've seen a lot things over time," he said. "One of the things most people don't know is that Idaho does things a bit differently here. The thing that impresses me the most is that they made the performance even better through leaner management and newer strategies."
One of the biggest differences between Idaho and other states is that Idaho requires most adult food stamp recipients be employed--working the equivalent of 30 hours--or actively participating in a work training program.
"And I think that another big misconception [is] that they're under the impression that people are just sitting at home collecting food stamps," said Wolff. "The Food Stamp Program is truly a work support program. If you're working 30 hours a week at minimum wage, you're barely paying your rent. You barely have enough for child care while you're working, let alone expenses for medicine or transportation. Food assistance doesn't become a replacement for income. It's a supplement, in [being] able to meet basic minimum needs. Serving the working poor is so important. If you can't buy food, you certainly can't put gas in your car and then you can't get to work the next day."
Barron who oversees all of the statewide self-reliance programs for the Division of Welfare, said the need for Idaho's working poor is at record numbers.
"You see more minimum-wage jobs," he said. "The real answer to all of this is jobs and livable wages. What we can do here in the meantime is to try to stabilize a family and help them get those jobs. I'm not saying that the [Food Stamp] Program couldn't use changes, but if you do change it in some way that harms a family, then it will probably manifest somewhere else: domestic violence, harm to children. It does come out."
Meanwhile, a team of investigators is tasked with maintaining the integrity of Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's many services.
"We're investigating fraud in all units of Health and Welfare," fraud investigation supervisor Benjamin Johnson told Boise Weekly. "In fiscal year 2013, we referred 1,000 cases statewide as potential program violation or intentional error. About 80 percent were connected to food stamps."
That number remained steady for years, both pre- and post-recession, according to Johnson, meaning the percentage of intentional program violations dropped significantly as the number of recipients grew.
"There are several ways we receive referrals. Anyone can call the 2-1-1 line and report something or go to our website, but only about 2 percent of those turn out to be fraud. But with our data mainlining, where we're drilling into the details, we're finding that 80 percent of those leads are accurate."
Some of the cases are significant enough that they are referred to state law enforcement for prosecution, but many of the violators face something called an Intentional Program Violation document.
"They sign it and that means they're off food stamps for a full year on their first violation," said Johnson. "A second violation means they're off for 24 months, and if there's a third violation, they're out for life."
"You would think that there would be more referrals or violations with the increase of recipients, but there aren't," he added.
Meanwhile, back at the Westgate office, scores of potential applicants continue to stream through the doors.
"We have very high standards here," said Hammon. "The most important thing is for people to be respected, to have their dignity and not be embarrassed. The first thing you do is make them as comfortable as they can be."
A mother with two children, one on each arm, approached the desk and cracked a small smile.
"I hope you can help."