Meet the Food Stamp Firms of Maryland

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images

First in a series

Anne Arundel County is one of the richest counties in the richest state in the nation. Yet over the last decade the number of children eligible for a free school lunch in that county has jumped by 81%.

Typically there would be some obvious explanation for this incredible increase. Perhaps there was a corresponding jump in population, a steadily worsening economy or a change in the eligibility for a free school lunch. But the population increased by only 11 percent, the economy has improved steadily since the Great Recession, and there have been no changes in eligibility requirements.

This series is an attempt to discover what has gone so wrong.

In a sense Anne Arundel County is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.” If child hunger is a growing problem there, it can only be much worse in poorer jurisdictions. Which is why, while discussing the problem statewide, the series will focus on Anne Arundel’s hungry children.

To discuss this problem, we have chosen to dispense with some of the current jargon. It is fashionable to say people are “food insecure” instead of hungry. However, it is doubtful that anyone ever said, “Hey, I am feeling food insecure. Let’s get some lunch.”

By the same token, government programs have been named to make them sound upbeat. The old food stamp program is now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). We will use the more descriptive “food stamp.”

And finally we make the assumption that child hunger is a societal problem. It is common for some to argue that help for poor adults should be limited because they are “lazy” or “dishonest.” There is no such argument when it comes to children. It is society’s responsibility to make sure no child goes hungry.

The Partnership to End Childhood Hunger In Maryland, a collaboration of business, nonprofit and government leaders, has been set up to lead the way in the state’s war on hunger.

However, Maryland’s database of food stamp recipients, which the Hogan administration disclosed only after a seven-month legal battle, shows that several of the organizations supposedly fighting child hunger are, in fact, members of the “food stamp family”: organizations paying so little that their workers are on food stamps.

The database also shows:

  • The largest employer of people who are on food stamps is the government;
  • Among the top 10 privately-owned organizations using food stamp workers is Johns Hopkins University which has an endowment of over $4 billion;
  • Those receiving food stamps also list several charities including Goodwill and Catholic Charities as their employer.

But the most inexplicable discovery is that, while The Partnership to End Childhood Hunger says its goal is “to increase food security for our state’s families,” several of its members are paying their employees what amounts to starvation wages.

And those wages have a huge impact on child hunger. State records show that during the 2019 school year over 177,000 children in Maryland were eligible for a free lunch and breakfast because their parents were on food stamps. While those meals clearly helped during the school day, they had no impact at night, on weekends or over the summer.

When someone applies for food stamps, they are asked if they are working and, if so, they must produce pay stubs showing who the employer is and what they are paid. All that information is then entered into a state database.

Walmart, for example, is both a member of The Partnership and prominent in the state food stamp database. In fact, state records show it is the premier example of a private employer paying so little that its employees must turn to the government for food assistance. In August of 2019 there were 1,120 employees at Walmart who qualified for food stamps. That was the greatest number of employees of any private business in the state.

And, as is typical for so many large food stamp firms, Walmart is incredibly profitable, showering billions of dollars on its owners. The Walton family, which controls the company, has an estimated worth of $174 billion.

Another member of The Partnership is Catholic Charities. It had 70 employees on food stamps. That is surprising considering that, according to the most recent publicly available tax return, it had revenues of $111 million in 2016. Catholic Charities was also able to pay William J. McCarthy Jr., who heads the charity, more than $470,000 last year.

 

Christine Collins, a spokesperson for Catholic Charities, said she didn’t know what McCarthy was paid but she said, “I can tell you that 89 to 90 cents of every dollar that we bring in goes directly to services that we provide to the people that we serve. And so I think it’s 8 to 9% of administrative and about 2% as fundraising. So we are one of the most efficiently run nonprofits that that you might be able to find.”

Collins said the starting salary in 2019 at Catholic Charities was $13 per hour, $2 above the state minimum wage, which just went up to $11 an hour on Jan. 1, a 90-cent increase from the previous $10.10. On a yearly basis this would be $27,040 or about the limit of what a family of three could earn and still be eligible for food stamps.

“It’s never comfortable to know that people that you care about are struggling in some way,” Collins said. But she added, “We employ [people] who have come through our programs and have little to no work experience of any kind. And so, you know, maybe they’re paid at a $13 an hour rate commensurate with – actually above commensurate – market value with what their experience might be.”

In the end Collins said it is a question of balance. “So there’s also that balance for us to try to strike in being able to provide more for our employees and still provide the level of service and care for our community and the individuals we serve at the same rate or better,” Collins said.

The school pantry

The Maryland State Department of Education is also a partner fighting child hunger. The agency should know something about child hunger because public schools give out free breakfasts and lunches to thousands of children. But those same schools also have 665 employees on food stamps. Anne Arundel County Public Schools alone accounts for 50.

The situation of these food stamp employees in Anne Arundel is so dire that cafeteria staff and teacher’s aides are allowed to take food from the school’s “pantry” that is normally used to provide emergency aid for students.

The plight of Anne Arundel’s school employees is apparently well known. One school administrator said, “Considering, you know, the salaries that some of our folks get – the custodial maintenance area – I think I’m surprised it’s only 50.”

Maryland Matters provided George Arlotto, the Anne Arundel school superintendent, with a list of questions about school employees on food stamps on Dec. 18. At least eight messages were left with the school district’s head of public communications over the next several weeks but all attempts to get an interview were unsuccessful.

However, Michelle Corkadel, the president of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, did speak with Maryland Matters.

When asked why the school district can’t pay some of its employees a living wage, Corkadel launched into a 11-minute monologue on how wages are negotiated, the various sources of funds available to the school board, the education reform recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, the way the school board and county government haggle over the school budget, the difference between how school superintendents negotiate, the value of different employees, and, finally, her belief that wages are proportionate to the job description.

The school district with the largest number of food stamp workers is Baltimore County, which is listed in the state database 150 times.

“Unfortunately, we do have staff that are at that level and in a perfect world nobody would be at that level,” said Brandon Oland, a spokesman for the school system.

He said the large number of food stamp workers was probably because “we are one of the largest school districts, period.” However, Montgomery County, which is the largest school district in the state, is listed as having 55 food stamp workers.

Oland later released a statement from the school district that said, “BCPS offers salaries that are competitive with neighboring school systems for all positions. In addition, BCPS offers an assistance program for any employees facing hardships, and we will continue to support our more than 18,000 employees no matter what types of challenges they are facing.”

The governor’s office is also listed as one of the co-chairs of The Partnership to End Childhood Hunger. The government — city, county, state, public school and the federal government in Maryland — leads the way with the most employees struggling to feed their children. These agencies have 1,751 workers on the list.

While not all the members of The Partnership pay starvation wages, the fact that there are so many may explain The Partnership’s “goals.” Instead of advocating for a higher minimum wage, the website says it wants to increase the number of kids using the federally funded free breakfast program at school as well as the “At-Risk After School” program and a summer meals program. All these programs are necessary, The Partnership explains, because children “may not get an adequate dinner at home.”

The fact that several members of The Partnership are adding to the hunger problem in Maryland points to a larger problem that an analysis of the database makes clear: starvation wages touch almost every part of Maryland’s economy.

In a sense this is not surprising because the database contains more than 43,000 food stamp employees. They have to work somewhere.

But the list of the top 10 food stamp firms in the state only hints at the pervasiveness of this practice. While companies like Walmart and Amazon are well known for their low-wage jobs, Johns Hopkins is not. And yet Johns Hopkins is ranked sixth among the firms.

Because of the state’s lax data entry standards, it is hard to tell whether most of those on food stamps are working for the university or the school’s world-renowned hospital. Some entries only say “Johns Hopkins.” It is also likely that there are duplicate entries for some people. Food Stamp applicants are required to bring a pay stub to document employment. But sometimes a person will bring a couple of pay stubs and state workers will enter both of them into the database.

Whatever the location and number of Food Stamp workers, Johns Hopkins does not seem to be struggling to meet its payroll. Johns Hopkins University has an endowment of more than $4 billion — earmarked for specific purposes — and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently chipped in another $1.8 billion to make sure that no student graduated with school related debt.

On the hospital end, Johns Hopkins Medical Services Corporation reported $398.5 million in revenue in 2016 and paid Ronald R. Peterson, then the chairman of the board, $2.7 million.

Over a month after Johns Hopkins was asked to comment about its food stamp workers, the university issued a statement saying it provides jobs to approximately 53,000 people with “varying levels of skill and experience.” It also said that Johns Hopkins “was a leading voice among private employers” advocating for a $15 minimum wage. And it said the university was “proud to be a driver of economic opportunity for our employees and those in the community.”

The statement did not explain why it was one of the top 10 employers of food stamp workers. However, a university spokesperson did say that its pay scale started at $13 per hour, which would make a family of three or larger eligible to apply for food stamps.

While Johns Hopkins is a leader in paying starvation wages, it is far from the only university or hospital to force its employees to turn to food stamps. The University of Maryland, Towson University, Howard University, the University of Baltimore and Loyola University, to name only a few, all have food stamp employees. And the same is true for hospitals: Sinai, Bon Secours, MedStar and Frederick Hospital engage in the same practice.

Nor are food stamp employees restricted to large organizations such as Johns Hopkins or Amazon. They exist in the offices of doctors and lawyers. The law firm of Saiontz & Kirk, which regularly advertises on TV, has six. The list shows 17 at The Baltimore Sun and two each at the Cumberland Times-News and the Frederick News-Post. They work in beauty parlors, barber shops, security companies landscaping, temp agencies, nursing homes, and hospices.

And most improbably, they work in non-profit agencies that supposedly exist to help the poor.

Just the beginning of a stipend’

While Catholic Charities lists 70 employees on food stamps, it is far from the largest charity that traffics in food stamp workers. That distinction goes to Goodwill. On its website Goodwill says it helps “people find jobs, support their families and feel the satisfaction that comes from working.” What it does not say is that there are 188 records in the food stamp database naming Goodwill as the employer.

One of the stores named is Hagerstown Goodwill, which accounts for four of the food stamp listings. In 2017, the store reported revenues of $20.7 million and said it paid its director, John McCain, $187,158.

By contrast, the much larger Goodwill Industries of The Chesapeake located in Baltimore had revenues of $76.9 million and paid its director, Lisa Rusyniak, $388,576 in 2017. The Baltimore operation was named 32 times in the food stamp database.

“Our mission here is providing job training,” said Jonathan Balog, a spokesman for the Goodwill. “We work with external employees, but we also hire internally for our jobs and a lot of the people we work with are out of the workforce, lower education so it might be their first job or first job in a while. So, our entry level retail positions are at…the state minimum wage.”

While he said that Goodwill’s low wages are “absolutely something we analyze every year, we approach it in the sense that, yes, it’s an entry-level position, but we want to work with you and get you to advance through our store as quickly as possible.” To better paying jobs.

Balog also said the nonprofit has a team whose only job is helping employees with financial issues. The team, for example, would try to help them find affordable childcare.

Would the team bump up the employee’s salary so they could afford childcare?

“No,” said Balog.

A lesser known non-profit that also has food stamp workers is Second Chance Inc. of Baltimore. According to its website it “provides people, materials and the environment with a second chance.“ What that means exactly is that it tears down buildings, salvages what it can and then sells the material in its retail store. As part of its mission it gives ex-convicts a second chance by hiring and training them.

Its non-profit filings appear to show it is doing well. Second Chance reported $12.2 million in revenues and its founder, Mark Foster, was paid $254,000 in 2016, the last year for which data are available.

Foster said he did not know some of his workforce was on food stamps but he was not surprised.

“What we pay them is just the beginning of a stipend to get started,” Foster explained, “and it wouldn’t surprise me that that’s not sufficient necessarily. We want people to get on their feet, but we also want them to continue to be, no pun intended, hungry for more opportunities. And so sometimes, if you pay people too much, you sometimes end up with circumstances where people get complacent.

“If they have the good fortune to be able to get food stamps and have a job, I’m not so sure I would feel bad about that. Maybe I should.”

Foster estimates that about half of the people he hires drop out of the program after 90 days. And that is why he doesn’t pay something closer to a living wage, such as $15 per hour.

“If you have a success rate of 50%, you’ve just wasted the money that could be applied to the ones that eventually choose to show you that they are committed,” Foster said.

While these numbers paint a picture of a society where the gulf between rich and poor in America is ever widening, there a more poignant picture to be found in the numbers.

The labor contract between the Anne Arundel school system and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) shows that some food service workers earn so little that they qualify for food stamps.

In other words, the children in the school cafeteria who are eligible for a free school lunch because their parents are on food stamps are probably being served by a worker on food stamps.

Welcome to the food stamp family.

Read the whole series:

Today’s sidebar: Bum Blockade: How We Got the Food Stamp Data

Part two: All About the Hunger Industry, plus The Tax Deduction Recipe That Feeds Hunger

Part three: Measuring Hunger: One Size Does Not Fit All, plus Calculating How to Go Hungry

Part four: The No Man’s Land of Childhood Hunger

Part five: When the Floor Becomes the Ceiling

Part six: There’s No Wage Like the Minimum Wage

Part seven: The Volunteer Army Trying to Fight Hunger

Elliot Jaspin is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who has worked for over 40 years at newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maine, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. He has also taught journalism at the University of Missouri and the University of Maryland.

Jaspin founded the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting and was honored for his computer work by the National Press Foundation in 1994. In addition, he is the author of “Buried In The Bitter Waters: The Hidden History Of Racial Cleansing In America.” He lives in Annapolis and can be reached at [email protected]

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