Tornadoes, Austerity, and Food Stamps

In one of my posts on drones, I noted that we have had more deaths this year in AL (238) and MO (159) because of extreme tornadoes the severity of which is probably at least due partly to climate change than we have from terrorism.

But there’s something else that seems to have happened.

Meteor Blades has a post cataloging how many more people are relying on food stamps this month–45.8 million, or close to 15% of the country. He links to the state-level data, which reveals  a huge spike in AL’s use of food stamps. In April 2011, 868,813 Alambamans used food stamps–a worse than average but not abysmal 18% of its population. In May, that number spiked to 1,762,481, over 37% of the population, almost 900,000 new people getting food stamps.

Incidentally, the only people from AL’s congressional delegation to vote no on the debt ceiling vote this week–Martha Robey, Mo Brooks, Richard Shelby, and Jeff Sessions–did so from the right.

Assuming these numbers are right (the numbers reported for new applicants–100,000 from hard-hit Jefferson County–seem to support them), there’s still a good reason why so many Alabamans are relying on federal aid to feed themselves: the devastating tornadoes in April. In response, the state rolled out special sign-up processes, turning around applications in three days time. Though, at least from some quarters, there was skepticism about whether people were applying because of the tornado, or more generalized need.

At the very least, the reliance of over a third of Alabamans on food stamps, half of them in response to the tornadoes, suggests one more cost from this crazy weather.

But it will be interesting to see what happens to these numbers in subsequent months. Will these numbers return to “normal,” reflecting an appropriate and short term response to a disaster (even if it is one Alabama’s legislators all refuse to pay for)? Or are we seeing a poor state come to rely on the government for bare necessities once it becomes easy to apply?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

25 replies
  1. rugger9 says:

    It’s hypocrisy in action by the AL GOP. These are the yahoos that voted in their congressional delegation, made Karl Rove a national figure, railroaded Ds they don’t like, and so many other details, including curious deaths. Check out for an in-country look.

    It does point out the GOP hypocrisy in display everywhere they are in power, they want the services, and the money [note that the GOP state admins generally balanced budgets with stimulus $$$, i.e. Rick Perry, while the D admins generally spent it on infrastructure projects ready to go.], but they sure as hell don’t want to actually PAY for what they got.

  2. BoxTurtle says:

    Remember the drought has devistated Al’s farming sector as well. It may not be just the tornados.

    And ya know what? They’ll re-elect those same SOB’s without hesitation because they’re pro-life.

    Boxturtle (Pro-life, pre-birth they should say)

  3. emptywheel says:

    @BoxTurtle: Thanks for the reminder.

    I also wonder to what extent JeffCo has such high numbers bc people have had to pay higher taxes bc of the JPMorgan scam.

    In which case, these food stamps would be just another subsidy to Jamie Dimon. But then he likes making $$ off of poor people.

  4. Mary McCurnin says:

    You have to be terribly poor to receive food stamps. 15% of the country is on them. How many poor people who don’t how or aren’t able to apply need food stamps?

    Households must not have more than $2,000 in “countable resources” to begin qualifying for food assistance. These resources include cash; bank accounts; and cars, if they are worth more than $4,650, are paid for and are not used as part of a business. Households with a member 60 years of age or older are allowed up to $3,000 in assets.

    Applicant households are allowed to make 130 percent of the proscribed poverty line income in their area, minus a few deductions. In the continental United States, a household with one member is allowed a monthly net income of up to $903; a two-member household, $1,215; a three-member household, $1,526 and so on. Income allowances are adjusted up for applicants in Hawaii, Alaska and Guam.

    Deductions are made for 20 percent of the household’s net income, medical care payments over $35, a “standard” deduction of $141 and up to $459 in shelter costs. Medical care payment deductions are only allowed for those over the age of 60 or those considered disabled and on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) support. Shelter cost deductions may include costs incurred by heating oil, electricity, water, rent, property tax and basic telephone service.

  5. Gitcheegumee says:

    >Mary McCurnin:

    Certainly makes one reconsider the term “Welfare Queen”.

    Now, just what are the paramaters for the imperial, corporate welfare..

    …what’s that…WHAT stinkin’ parameters??

  6. noble_serf says:

    I moved to AL a few years ago.

    The people vote against their own self interest with such fervor here that it can’t be comprehended.

    I was called a “faggit” for having a small, annual TerraPass sticker in the window of my truck.

  7. bailey says:

    I’m fed up with EVERYONE on the Left feeding the hostility of right wing voters by making judgemental assertions about how illogical & wrong they are.
    One of the HUGEST failings of the left has been to not immediately counter EVERY right-wing statement made by Representatives with a question how this is in the best interests of the voters in his District given the District’s demographics. Specifically, isn’t it time to ask right-wing Congressmen in Districts having a median income of $40,000 explain why they are against a graduated income tax system?
    Please EW, make the argument, spread it around & let’s see who follows. My guess is – the MAJOR problem voters face is with Media, our electors (both Parties) do only what they can get away with.

  8. floundericious says:

    Could we be seeing a reverse shock doctrine?

    Taking advantage of a crisis to get social services funded because of the “ongoing emergency”?

  9. emptywheel says:

    @Mary McCurnin: Which, assuming there are no exemptions for disasters like that in AL, means that 20% of the state has qualified for them all along, but only finally applied bc the tornadoes and the state’s actions afterwards facilitated that process.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @floundericious: I’m really curious what the racial breakdown of this 37% is. If it’s fairly balanced, then the state and its legislators will have a hard time turning on residents. That is, they’ll become stuck with it. But if it skews African American, then it might well be used to mobilize racial persecution.

  11. joberly says:

    @EW–Interesting post. The data that Meteor Blade links to from USDA does not show anything comparable to Alabama for other southern states hit hard by the spring rains, storms, and floods. Arkansas, which was hit hard, had its SNAP recipients drop in May from April. Mississippi, which was deluged by floods, only increased six-tenths of one percent. Alabama looks like the outlier, increasing 102% in just one month.
    I was in Vicksburg, MS in late June with a Civil War teachers’ group and we saw signs everywhere in town and in Yazoo City with information about how to apply for flood relief from FEMA; not sure if that offer of help included SNAP applications.

  12. radiofreewill says:

    There are many rural Southern counties whose largest payroll is ‘welfare’ – WIC, food stamps, etc – and the majority of whose recipients are white.

    In Alabama, the scenery is of a culture frozen in time, austere, but rusting.

    We used to tell the joke, long before the recent deadly storms – Hey, did you hear a tornado came through Alabama? Yeah, I heard it did $50 million of improvement.

    I once had a college summer job idea that I would start a business called The Box Kite Mobile Home Tethering Company and go to Alabama staking-down trailers for $25 apiece – Looking back, I tell you, I could’ve been a millionaire!

    When I think about Shelby County, in 1964, having 80,000 eligible to vote african-americans but only 8,000 registered – compared to 50,000 registered white voters, then it doesn’t surprise me in the least that an outsider – the feds – came in and made nearly a million poor Alabamans aware of how to get food stamps…

    They’ve been practicing ‘information austerity’ there for at least 150 years.

  13. Jim White says:

    When Rick Scott took office, I predicted that his policies would result in Florida being the leading edge of the US falling into full economic depression. Alabama may be ahead of us right now, but this post makes me think we’re only a hurricane or two away from re-taking the dubious lead. And the season is nearing its annual high point…

  14. emptywheel says:

    @joberly: Interesting. There was a lot of advertising for that AL effort to enroll people. I’d love to see how effective that ways. Obviously, reporting does make it clear that there’s a tie between state efforts and the big spike. But I’d love to know more what went into it.

  15. emptywheel says:

    @Jim White: Dude. FL is SO FAR BEHIND MI in Depression leading edge it’s not funny. Sure, you’re making good ground. Sure, we’re probably going to ride out climate change better than most other states. Sure, Rick Scott makes Snyder look downright reasonable.

    But c’mon dude. MI has earned this, don’t try to claim you’re the vanguard when you’re half a decade behind!

  16. emptywheel says:

    Incidentally, while we’re looking at big jumps, NC is one of the few other states that had a higher than AL-distorted average. Anyone know why?

  17. Arthur Wilke says:

    Alabama 1) is a poor state with significant inequality and 2) it receives more federal dollars than are sent to Washington.

    As to the Food Stamp report, some additional context is in order.

    Food Stamp usage is high, however as the following shows from the Alabama Department of Human Resources, the economic downturn was a significant contributor to increased recipients between 2007 and 2008:

    572,557 October 1, 2007 to September 30, 2008
    679,139 October 1, 2008 to September 30,2009
    804,322 October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010

    869,429 March 2011
    868,751 April 2011
    876,159 May 2011
    881,763 June 2011

    There is a further qualification on the figures cited in the post as explained by an Alabama DHR spokesperson:

    “The actual number of recipients for May was 1,426,291. However, 550,132 of the May recipients received food assistance through the Disaster Supplemental Assistance Program (DSNAP). This was a one-time benefit for individuals and families who became eligible for the program due to the tornado disaster that occurred in April. The 1,762,481 number cited came from the federal government and included duplications due to some recipients of the food assistance program also receiving a separate disaster benefit. This resulted in some recipients being counted twice.”

  18. emptywheel says:

    Thanks Arthur.

    (I’m not beating up on AL, btw, MI’s a poor state too!)

    I’m confused, though–if the number was 1.4 M, then even assuming 500,000 are double counts, that would be higher than the number AL uses, right?

  19. joberly says:

    @Arthur Wilke # 19–thank you for this clarification. It helps makes sense of the Alabama spike. But EW #20 is right–there are still 335K persons beyond the DSNAP additional 550K.
    A related USDA program is the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program. I believe the current number of children receiving free or reduced price lunches at school is 31 million, and another 12 million(or likely the very same kids) receive free or reduced price breakfasts. I wonder if a graph of School lunch & breakfast program kids would like the same as the one Meteor Blade showed of the rise in SNAP recipients.

  20. Victoria says:

    I just saw an article that stunned me. In the Chattanooga local paper I learned that the Food Bank of NW Alabama had closed a local distribution center because of understaffing

    Here is why: “Companies such as Kelloggs’s, Hormel, Campbell and ConAgra donate food to the Huntsville central food bank. The companies request that all donated food be accounted for because of tax purposes, an arduous task that the local food bank was unable to complete”.

    “They were so small in terms of staff and funding: they were overworked and couldn’t get numbers of delivered goods required by the companies.”

    Can you believe this?? These big, fat, obscenely wealthy companies will only donate food to hungry families if they are given a lengthy accounting for TAX purposes??

    ConAgra probably receives hefty agricultural subsidies, and they are miserly enough to eek out additional monies at the cost of children going hungry.

    Why won’t our cowardly president get up and say this when he is talking about extending tax cuts and ‘shared sacrifice’.

  21. Arthur Wilke says:

    #20 RE: “. . .[I]f the number was 1.4 M, then even assuming 500,000 are double counts, that would be higher than the number AL uses, right?”

    I don’t have the data, but, as the AL DHR spokesperson noted, not all recipients of disaster supplemental assistance received an additional stipend. The calculation might be like this:

    876,159 May 2011 AL Food Stamp Recipients.
    550,132 Disaster Supplemental Assistance Program Recipients
    336,190 Presumed Duplicate Recipients
    1,762,481 Federal Total

  22. Arthur Wilke says:

    #22 RE: Corporate Demand for Accounting of Goods

    1. Disasters overwhelm many agencies, including those staffed by volunteers.

    2. In Alabama, corporations donating goods quickly asked those distributing donated items to mark-out the UPC codes as donated items were finding their way back to their refund counters. (I conjecture that local managers providing donations were not allocated additional labor to handle donations, though the tax advantage could be easily calculated.) A few desperate people as well as everyday hustlers can also calculate, like bankers, how to get a “free lunch,” a circumstance that’s routinely seized upon by those tolerant of misery.

    3. Even in routine times, corporations find that donated goods “compete” with their regular sales as they find their way into the supply chain.

    4. There’s a further problem when it comes to donating time-dated materials (vitamins, aspirins, etc.): corporations are required to have documentation that these materials were distributed by the time-stamped date. This becomes more challenging for those charities servicing foreign populations. Often the voluntary associations are ill-equipped for the task (in addition to poor inventory management and other cost accounting problems within corporations).

    4. I do not have systematic data, but I gather routine corporate donations have fallen off because of: a) better quality control (fewer labels askew, fewer misweighted products – items that would not be sold in the conventional markets), and b) marketing designed to sell previously donated items to discounters in addition to packaging for low end (dollar store) retailers.

  23. Victoria says:

    Arthur, I can’t disagree with the possibilities you pose above, however, the newspaper article clearly stated that the accounting was done for tax purposes.

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