This story was published in partnership with Vox.
In December, the Foundation for Government Accountability hosted public officials from across the country in Orlando. The scene: Walt Disney World’s Swan and Dolphin Resort, an ocean-themed oasis with palatial fountains next to a lake lined with palm trees.
The FGA, a right-leaning think tank based in Naples, Florida, paid travel and lodging expenses for many of the conservative leaders in attendance, including Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and three White House aides.
Guests heard presentations such as “Stop the Scam: The Reality of Food Stamp Fraud.” Between sessions, the foundation treated attendees to catered desserts and a fireworks display from a terrace featuring a faux Eiffel Tower overlooking the Epcot World Showcase Lagoon, according to invitations obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through open-records requests.
The FGA aimed to send decision-makers back to their respective states, or the nation’s capital, with fresh zeal to restrict access to public assistance programs designed for low-income people, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. The association even provided road maps for achieving this goal in the form of model legislation — suggested wording for laws and regulations that could serve as a template for like-minded policymakers.
While the public officials were being pampered in Florida, hundreds of thousands of people on the SNAP rolls in West Virginia were wondering how they would feed their families. A month after the FGA’s Disney gala, dozens of them gathered in a hallway at the First Presbyterian Church in Charleston, the state capital, to wait in line for their allotment at the food pantry hosted there so they could supplement their SNAP budgets — at most $192 per month for a single person.
Some, like Kevin Bass, a 58-year-old veteran with disabilities, were at the food pantry for the first time. Bass said his SNAP payments recently had been lowered to $34 because his wife had gotten a part-time job. Her income didn’t go very far, Bass said; hence his place in the line.
“I had to humble myself and come here to the pantry to survive,” he said in a voice made hoarse by years of welding.
Anxious conversation at the church that day revolved around the partial shutdown of the federal government that was entering its fourth week — and the prospect that SNAP funding would dry up within a month if the shutdown weren’t resolved. Caseworkers told some of those waiting they should be prepared to make their next SNAP installment, due at the end of January, last through April. A woman in line offered a cheap but questionable alternative to baby formula made from powdered milk and eggs.
All of this led Bass to a difficult conclusion: Politicians in West Virginia and Washington, D.C., didn’t seem to care about people like him. “Everybody is just trying to get over on everybody else,” he said.
The government shutdown ended in late January, and SNAP payments continued for most people. But thousands are still without SNAP in West Virginia and other states, in part because of policies advocated by the FGA.
The FGA’s growing influence
FGA president and CEO Tarren Bragdon said in an email to the Center for Public Integrity that the group is “focused on policy changes that protect resources for the truly needy and put millions of Americans on the path to achieving the American Dream.”
The FGA and its 501(c)(4) nonprofit lobbying wing, the Opportunity Solutions Project, advocate for a variety of policy proposals, from reforming licensing requirements for workers set by state and local governments, to installing work requirements for Medicaid and blocking that program’s expansion under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Since its founding in 2011, the FGA has attracted a pool of benefactors — mostly wealthy people whose identities are kept secret and conservative foundations. In 2017, the most recent year for which tax records are available, its budget exceeded $5.9 million. It typically spends its money on well-connected lobbyists, research of dubious quality, prewritten legislation, and trips to Florida for public officials who oversee government assistance programs for some of the nation’s most vulnerable people.
Several states — including Kansas, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Kentucky — have implemented one of the FGA’s signature proposals: work requirements for SNAP recipients. The FGA is positioned to build on that success at the federal level: It lobbied Congress through the Opportunity Solutions Project to include work requirements for SNAP in the 2018 farm bill; the requirements made it into the US House of Representatives version but didn’t pass the Senate.
The Trump administration’s 2020 budget, introduced in March, embraces the same concept.
Amy Jo Hutchison, an organizer for Our Children Our Future, an advocacy group fighting child poverty in West Virginia, finds it all discouraging and infuriating.
“It’s easy to sit on the outside and think, ‘Why don’t people just get jobs?’ But it’s not that simple,” said Hutchison, a SNAP recipient herself until last year.
She was among dozens of people who traveled from West Virginia to Washington in July 2018 to urge Congress to reject the work requirements proposed as part of that year’s farm bill. The contingent met with West Virginia’s congressional delegation and placed notes on the office door of the FGA’s 2018 lawmaker of the year, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX). Conaway was then the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees SNAP, and is now the committee’s ranking Republican member.
They were able to stave off the federal proposal. But work requirements will be in place for all of West Virginia by 2022 because of FGA-backed legislation carried by Republicans. For Hutchison, it was just one more skirmish in a larger, conservative-led crusade against poor people.
“You win in one direction,” she said, “and they pull the rug out from the other side.”
The US Department of Agriculture calls SNAP “the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net.” In 2018, SNAP served an average of 40 million people a month, at an annual cost of $64 billion.
Research by the Ohio Association of Food Banks found that many SNAP recipients have serious impediments to work, such as undiagnosed disabilities, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the group’s executive director. She said as much in testimony this year before the Ohio Legislature and the US House. But she felt some lawmakers tuned her out.
“I can’t fly them to Disney,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “All I can do is take them to a food pantry in their district so they can see who’s hungry, but they don’t seem interested.”
On July 23, the Trump administration announced it was pursuing another FGA-backed proposal, closing what an FGA policy report calls an administrative “loophole” that allows states to enroll people in SNAP if they make use of another public assistance program.
The Obama administration had encouraged states to use this arrangement to reduce duplicative paperwork and extend SNAP to people who would otherwise be ineligible due to the program’s strict income limits. Ending this policy, as the FGA suggests, would kick an estimated 3.1 million people off SNAP. The Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments on the proposed rule until September 23.
Must work for food
FGA president Tarren Bragdon was the CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market think tank, and a former state legislator when Republican Paul LePage was elected governor of Maine in 2010.
Bragdon served as chair of LePage’s gubernatorial transition and helped LePage build a team that remade the state’s welfare system by installing work requirements and otherwise restricting access to SNAP and other programs.
Soon, Bragdon decamped to warmer climes. He told reporters he moved to Florida in 2011 to be close to wealthy denizens of Naples, a city on Florida’s west coast with reliably conservative residents, like former Florida governor and current US Sen. Rick Scott.
As a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit, the FGA is not required to disclose the identities of its donors. However, tax documents for 2011 from the State Policy Network, a group of conservative nonprofits, show that the network provided $60,000 in seed money to the FGA. The network has received financial support from the Charles Koch Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute, and the DeVos family, whose fortune came from the Amway multilevel marketing company and whose most prominent member is US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The State Policy Network gave the FGA $160,000 total from 2012 to 2013, according to tax records. States began reinstating SNAP work requirements around the same time.
Ever since Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, people who can’t qualify for federal disability benefits and have no young children at home are limited to three months of SNAP benefits — if they don’t report working an average of 20 hours per week.
The requirements proved contentious from the start. President Bill Clinton objected to their inclusion even as he signed the welfare legislation into law. Clinton said at the time that the three-month limit “fails to provide Food Stamp support to childless adults who want to work but cannot find a job or are not given the opportunity to participate in a work program.” The Department of Agriculture did allow states to request waivers exempting areas with unemployment rates above 10 percent or a “lack of sufficient jobs.”
Every state but Delaware took advantage of the waivers after the 2008 financial crisis, and SNAP enrollment climbed until 2013. But many of those waivers expired in 2016, and SNAP enrollment has declined ever since.
The FGA argues that eliminating the waivers and requiring SNAP recipients to work will help get people off welfare and back into the workforce. But the effectiveness of work requirements is fiercely debated. Evan Weissman, an assistant professor of food studies at Syracuse University, calls them “draconian policies that have never been proven to be an effective strategy to encourage people to get jobs.”
Weissman said the economic recovery has been uneven, and while national unemployment numbers are low, some local economies are still floundering. Many of the people impacted by SNAP work requirements are working already, he said, but in unstable jobs that don’t guarantee the 20 hours a week needed to comply with the law.
States began experimenting with SNAP work requirements after a conservative wave hit state capitals in 2010; Maine and Kansas were among the first. Kansas’s Republican Gov. Sam Brownback installed the requirements in 2013. Two years later, legislators codified them and other Brownback-endorsed welfare reforms with the passage of the Kansas Hope, Opportunity, and Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE) Act and later, the HOPE Act 2.0.
The FGA offered written testimony in support of the legislation. It then began pushing its own version of the act as model legislation nationwide. Among the main planks:
- Restricting states’ ability to seek waivers from SNAP work rules
- Requiring more stringent screening of SNAP applicants and closer scrutiny of eligibility for Medicaid and SNAP recipients
- Empowering states to hire third-party contractors to help ferret out fraud in those programs
To support the proposal, the FGA produced research from states such as Kansas that had implemented SNAP work requirements. The research materials, illustrated with stock images and generalized accounts of people who left SNAP for gainful employment, assert that such requirements are good for both state welfare budgets and SNAP recipients. They cite a 75 percent drop in the number of able-bodied adults on SNAP in Kansas, and say people who found jobs after being removed from the rolls reported average income growth of 127 percent.
But those findings have been challenged by conservative and liberal policy experts alike.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-of-center group, said the FGA reports “misrepresent or omit data” and that people were leaving SNAP on their own, thanks to an improving economy. The center’s analysis of the same Kansas data parsed by the FGA concluded that most who are jettisoned from SNAP remain low-income.
Peter Germanis, a conservative welfare reform expert who worked for the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, calls the FGA’s work “dangerous.”
“Nobody who’s serious about public policy really takes them seriously,” Germanis told Public Integrity in a phone interview. “But politicians seem to love them because [the FGA] tells them what they want to hear.”
A recent working paper from the USDA’s Economic Research Service found evidence that work requirements in states like Kansas reduce participation in SNAP but don’t seem to lead people toward employment. The unpublished paper, not yet peer-reviewed, found evidence that the policy is especially hard on people who live in areas of high unemployment or lack a high school diploma.
In Kansas, provisions of the HOPE Act have been especially hard on children. New research by Donna Ginther of University of Kansas and Michelle Johnson-Motoyama of Ohio State University found, for example, that the law’s limitations on cash payments through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program led to thousands of children becoming wards of the state. A legislative task force in 2017 investigated Kansas’s foster care system after several children under the program’s supervision died. The task force’s final report, released this year, recommended that the state “fully fund, strengthen and expand safety net” programs.
Kansas’s new governor, Democrat Laura Kelly, sat on the task force as a legislator and is working to undo much of the HOPE Act. “The governor has promised Kansans she’ll work with the Legislature to reform the destructive Brownback-Colyer HOPE Act to remove the parts that damage our communities,” Kelly’s press secretary, Lauren Fitzgerald, said in an emailed statement to Public Integrity.
At the same time, donations to the FGA are climbing. Tax documents show the FGA in recent years has received contributions from Donors Trust, described by Mother Jones as the “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement”; the Donors Capital Fund; and the Wisconsin-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which advocates for limited government.
Tax documents from the Virginia-based Wellspring Committee, a nonprofit that donates heavily to conservative causes, show $350,000 in grants to FGA Action — parent of the Opportunity Solutions Project — in 2017. All told, the FGA took in $6.6 million that year, records show.
The FGA’s influence appears to be growing. The FGA and the Opportunity Solutions Project hired lobbyists in 13 states in 2017, according to data gathered by the National Institute on Money in Politics. Among them: Florida, Kentucky, and Wisconsin.
The FGA’s 2017 annual report says more than 85 legislators and 15 state executive branch officials attended the group’s Solutions Summit that year at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa in Naples, Florida.
Ed Gaunch attended one such conference when he was a state senator in West Virginia, he said in an FGA promotional video. Gaunch later introduced legislation modeled on the HOPE Act that included work requirements for SNAP.
“Working with FGA is really very easy,” Gaunch, now West Virginia’s commerce secretary, said in the video. “I just wish they could handle every aspect of what I do in state government.”
Gaunch, who declined through a spokesman to comment, said his bill would preserve resources for the truly needy. But a coalition of grassroots groups disagreed, arguing the measure would harm West Virginians by taking already meager nutrition assistance away from them without offering meaningful help finding jobs.
Before Gaunch’s 2017 bill could become law, it had to get through Betty Rivard, a bespectacled 74-year-old who knows her way around West Virginia’s capital thanks to a career with the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources, which administers SNAP.
Rivard retired in 1999 but was “freaked out” by Gaunch’s bill when she read about it in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Gaunch and West Virginia’s Republican leadership were selling the bill as a mere tweak to the state’s welfare system, but Rivard believed the consequences would be devastating.
She sat down with Gaunch in his office at the state Capitol. Gaunch, she said, showed her policy statements in support of his bill — on FGA letterhead.
The state already had begun implementing some of the FGA’s policies in a nine-county pilot program to test SNAP reform in places that appeared to be economically stable. The Department of Health and Human Resources said in written testimony in 2017 that the program removed more than 5,000 people from the SNAP rolls but had a negligible effect on their finding employment.
Cabell County, with an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent, is one of West Virginia’s pilot locations. Employment numbers in the county are propped up by the presence of Marshall University in Huntington, the second-largest city in West Virginia. But some residents are struggling.
The Facing Hunger Food Bank in Cabell saw a 30 percent increase in visitors after the SNAP reform experiment began. Cynthia Kirkhart, the food bank’s executive director, said many politicians who are in favor of work requirements misunderstand the nature of poverty. Many of her clients live in isolated pockets of Appalachia without reliable transportation, Kirkhart said. Some may be functionally illiterate or have no access to job retraining programs.
“There’s always an assumption that people are making bad choices or just don’t want to work,” Kirkhart said. “I just don’t see that. Many times they are making the best decisions out of very difficult choices, and those looking from the outside don’t have all of the information from which to form an opinion.”
In fact, state hearing records show that some West Virginians were kicked off SNAP — accused of not meeting work requirements — for spurious reasons. Some misunderstood the forms, for example; in other cases, required notices were sent to the wrong addresses.
SNAP helps low-income West Virginians buy groceries on their own instead of relying on food banks or going hungry. While helpful, the benefits are modest. The CBPP calculates that the average West Virginian in the program gets $1.29 in aid per meal.
There’s evidence that SNAP is a net positive for West Virginia’s economy. Economists at Moody’s Analytics estimated that every $1 in SNAP payments generates $1.70 in economic activity by putting money into the hands of local businesses.
In testimony, the Department of Health and Human Resources estimated that Gaunch’s FGA-backed bill in 2017 would have resulted in about $17 million “fewer federal SNAP dollars circulating through the West Virginia economy.”
When a new version of the legislation resurfaced in 2018, this time sponsored by Republican state Del. Tom Fast, it was met with furious grassroots resistance. Betty Rivard hand-delivered the health department’s testimony to lawmakers under the Capitol’s golden dome. Dozens of West Virginians voiced their opposition at a public hearing.
Only two people spoke in favor of the bill: lobbyist Juliet Terry, who represents the Opportunity Solutions Project as well as the Coal Association of West Virginia and other business interests — and a representative of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Still, modified versions of the bill passed by a three-to-one margin in the West Virginia House and a two-to-one margin in the Senate. West Virginia’s Republican Gov. Jim Justice, a billionaire developer and the state’s wealthiest individual, signed it into law in March 2018 without issuing a press release.
The state is implementing SNAP work requirements county by county until October 2022. As of the end of 2018, at least 8,300 people in 18 counties had lost access to the program, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources. The state did not provide 2019 data.
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‘The right thing to do’ in Kentucky
Kentucky has removed more than 21,400 people from SNAP for failing to meet work requirements — the product of executive action by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration in 2018 — according to state data.
For this initiative and others, Bevin was named the FGA’s 2018 Governor of the Year. The group flew Bevin to Orlando to accept the award at its annual conference in December, reimbursing the state of Kentucky more than $5,300 for the trip.
Woody Maglinger, a deputy communications director for Bevin, said the FGA provides “useful technical assistance on a wide array of policy matters” but that changes to SNAP work requirements were “driven by the administration” Bevin leads.
The requirements are now enforced for all but eight of Kentucky’s counties, which were exempted because they are involved in a federal job-training initiative.
Jason Dunn, Kentucky’s SNAP director until 2017, felt much of the state was not ready for the work rules and was reluctant to subject parts of Kentucky to them. There are 120 counties in the state, and more than half still have unemployment rates high enough to qualify for exemptions from SNAP work requirements under federal rules.
“It was clear that enforcing a work reporting requirement in counties with high unemployment and limited job opportunities, with no real supports, would lead to thousands without SNAP benefits,” said Dunn, now a policy analyst for Kentucky Voices for Health, an advocacy group focused on poverty and other underlying detriments to health. “These reporting requirements further fray the social safety net and lead to increased hunger and food insecurity.”
Doug Hogan, a spokesperson for Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said in an emailed statement that the work requirements simply reflect “congressional intent of the mid-’90s welfare reform.” It’s “the right thing to do” at a time of low unemployment and labor shortages, Hogan said.
The Bevin administration consults the FGA on personnel as well as policy. The FGA maintains a “talent bank” to connect governors and federal agencies with like-minded staff the group describes as “passionate about ending the cycle of government dependency.”
According to emails obtained by Public Integrity through records requests, Bevin staffers tapped into the FGA’s candidate pool for potential hires in 2018, eventually naming David Wu, a former high-ranking Illinois state official, as director of business innovations and process improvements at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
“We reach out to a variety of sources to identify talent for consideration for appointed positions, and the FGA’s talent bank has been one such source,” Maglinger, Bevins’s spokesperson, said.
The people on the receiving end of the new SNAP policies rarely have advocates at the statehouse. Work requirements tend to disproportionately affect people grappling with addiction or undiagnosed mental illness, who don’t necessarily elicit sympathy from lawmakers.
They are people such as Machelle Thornton of Lexington, Kentucky, who lost her SNAP benefits earlier this year for failing to meet work requirements.
Thornton, 45, is still struggling with the trauma of a beating — delivered by a man with whom she was living, according to court records — that she says crushed the roof of her mouth and knocked out all her top front teeth. She said her assailant choked her into unconsciousness.
“I have PTSD and social anxiety,” Thornton said. “And because I’ve had issues with that and cannot work, they kicked me off [SNAP].”
Another FGA initiative adopted in Kentucky requiring SNAP recipients to work with child support services if they owe or are owed money in child support payments “can reduce childhood poverty and make it more likely that families will leave welfare,” the group says. In Kentucky, that means denying SNAP assistance to those who owe more than $500 in child support.
The policy doesn’t seem fair to Jennifer Wallace, who lives in Pendleton County, Kentucky. After a long battle with addiction and recovery, Wallace, 32, and her husband are on installment plans to pay more than $20,000 in back child support to her mother-in-law, with whom the Wallaces’ children live.
Since January, the Wallaces have gone without $353 a month in SNAP benefits. Jennifer Wallace had to turn to a local charity to pay a $44 electric bill. A $3 Tony’s frozen pizza qualifies as a weekend treat for the kids. Most of the time, “my refrigerator is completely empty,” she said. “My cabinets are almost there.”
Meanwhile, the movement to restrict government benefits such as SNAP continues to gain steam.
In May, for example, the US Department of Agriculture published a memorandum to state agencies that oversee SNAP, encouraging more states to adopt the child support policy.
“Increasing the number of states that implement child support cooperation requirements will benefit families, help non-custodial parents assume responsibility for the well-being and stability of their children, and provide more children with the support they deserve,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.
The FGA was ready that same day to issue a press release with praise for the Trump administration’s “bold steps,” complete with links to the group’s research.
Marisa Kwiatkowski of USA TODAY contributed to this report.
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