Food-stamp figures wrong in Md. census

Study shows 2001 report was only half of count


WASHINGTON -- The number of Marylanders who received food stamps in 2001 was almost twice what the Census Bureau reported, an undercount that could have far-reaching implications for the poor, the nonprofit groups that defend them and the state that helps support them.

A report co-written by analysts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maryland Department of Human Resources and the Census Bureau found that 157,857 people received food stamps in 2001 -- almost double the 87,429 figure given by the federal government.

"That's not wrong by a little. That's wrong by a lot," said Richard Larson, study co-author and Maryland DHR policy and research director. "If it's like this for food stamps, what's it like for any piece of census data you read?"

Larson stressed the report was not created to criticize the bureau or get more funding, but merely detailed what the agency acknowledges in its own surveys -- room for error.

"Surveys are based on people's responses to questions, not necessarily the truth," said Charles Nelson, an assistant division chief at the Census Bureau and not a report author. "There's nothing you can do if somebody doesn't want to tell you something."

The questions' wording also could have skewed the data, Nelson said. The traditional "Did you get food stamps?" may no longer work because most people now use food cards, not stamps.

The Census Bureau plans to test a modernized question early next year.

The report's six authors -- two of whom work for the Census Bureau -- compared the national survey with Maryland records and found that federal underreporting contributed most to the sharp contrast in numbers.

About 68 percent of the time, the federal agency misreported that no one in the survey household received food stamps, though Maryland issued benefits to someone in that household. Such underreporting occurred most often for recipients who had acquired the stamps in only one month during the survey period.

Other factors were discrepancies about what constitutes a household, an inability to account for households that moved in and out of Maryland and differences between the total numbers covered by the national and state records.

"This has enormous implications for how we talk about data," Larson said. "It should cause [people] to pause and at least ask the questions, `How valid is this number?' `How was it derived?' ... When you talk to the Census [Bureau] or read the fine print, they'll tell you it's always an estimate, but all of that gets lost in a haze of academic and bureaucratic gobbledygook."

Such estimates could have consequences.

The U.S. Agriculture Department provides bonuses to states that demonstrate the best or most improved access to their food stamp programs, as measured by the number of people receiving food stamps and the amount in poverty.

The department awarded $18 million Sept. 29 to 12 states, including Virginia, West Virginia and the District.

Maryland has never received a bonus, and the report's authors said data discrepancies could lead to an uneven playing field among states competing for awards.

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