The Principle of Help for Those Who Ask for It

By Robert Phillips, President and CEO,  Alluma

In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined the bedrock of America’s core values: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The “Four Freedoms” articulated a vision that a healthy democratic society must provide personal and economic security to all its citizens as part of its social contract. In short, they spelled out what made America great.

The fight for freedom from want has proven to be the most difficult and complex of the freedoms to achieve. Despite efforts to address it through our infrastructure of federal programs, our society still struggles with the twin issues of supporting people who by no fault of their own struggle with joblessness, homelessness, hunger, and income insecurity, and the principle of providing help to those who ask for it.

At times this struggle is rooted in a fundamentally different view of the problem we need to solve. We saw this recently when the current administration proposed rule changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The proposed changes would remove states’ ability to adjust income limits for SNAP recipients and automatically enroll people in SNAP based on eligibility for other aid programs. Officials say about 3 million of the estimated 40 million who receive SNAP assistance may be eliminated from the program as a result. In announcing the move, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said, “SNAP should be a temporary safety net.”

It’s true that economic insecurity is an episodic phenomenon for many families. And yes, programs should always be adjusted to maximize their impact. But the reality is, the administration says its proposed rule changes are a response to a high-profile case of fraud involving a millionaire who said he received SNAP assistance despite having too many assets. This example is not a cautionary tale, it’s a red herring.

We know from data that fraud is a very small problem in the context of SNAP. In 2016, according to the SNAP State Activity Report, SNAP provided $66.5 billion in benefits, of which 0.9% was later found to be fraud. In 2012, when SNAP provided $74.6 billion in aid, fraud represented 0.5%. While SNAP enrollment dropped from 46.6 million in 2012 to 44.2 million in 2016, the number of fraud cases increased 30% to 964,000. If fraud were SNAP’s big problem, we’d expect fraud to rise and fall in relation to the overall number of recipients and SNAP funding. But it doesn’t. And even accounting for the higher levels of documented fraud, 99% of SNAP dollars were in no way associated with fraud.

By focusing on the problem of connecting people with help, we can create a positive, self-reinforcing dynamic that makes SNAP and other programs temporary and impactful gateways to opportunity.

Another problem with the administration’s rule changes relates to why it should be implemented. With the modernization of government’s technology infrastructure, it’s possible to reduce the SNAP rolls by 3 million people almost instantaneously. But we should be clear about why we would do such a thing, and who will be affected. In this instance, the purported reason would be to wipe out fraud by excluding the very people from the SNAP program that it is specifically designed to help.

Those of us who work to connect people with help know the challenge of getting help to those who need it when they need it. For every story of someone exploiting the system, there are thousands of other untold stories of families in need who went without support for which they are worthy. The people whom we would all agree should get help often are hard to reach, may not realize they qualify, or may feel a sense of shame at asking.

Americans today agree on the notion of providing help more than you might think. According to a January 2018 survey from Pew Research Center, majorities of Americans believe the government should do more to help old people (65%), the poor (62%) and the middle class (61%). While there are partisan differences, both Republicans (63%) and Democrats (94%) say they either support current government efforts to help people in poverty or feel the government should do more.

At Alluma, we believe that any program that provides anyone with the opportunity to realize economic security is part of the foundation of healthy communities and ultimately a healthy democracy. By focusing on the problem of connecting people with help, we can create a positive, self-reinforcing dynamic that makes SNAP and other programs temporary and impactful gateways to opportunity.

Robert Phillips leads the strategic direction, fiscal stewardship, daily operations, and overall management of Alluma as CEO. A healthcare advocate and philanthropist, Robert joined the Board of Alluma (then Social Interest Solutions) in 2006, and became President of the Board and CEO in 2017. Follow Robert on LinkedIn and Twitter.