Sept. 21, 2005
By Susan Green
Food stamps are often the first line of defense against hunger, providing critical support to everyone who needs them.
When the Office of Family Stability, within the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS), noticed that food stamp participation rates were low in several Ohio counties, they turned to the Voinovich Center's Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development for answers.
Dominick Brook, a former data/research analyst in the Voinovich Center, says it was considered that one reason for low participation rates might be high Amish populations -- many of whom do not take part in food stamp programs -- in certain Ohio counties, but they needed an accurate count of Amish families to be sure.
Because of their religious beliefs, the Amish, and more conservative Mennonites, do not contribute to social security or Medicare, nor do they participate in governmental assistance programs. And although Ohio is home to the largest Amish population in the world, very little research about them exists.
"ODJFS looked at how many people were eligible for food stamps and then looked at the number of people participating in the program," Brook says. "There was a discrepancy in the numbers and they wanted to know why."
Enter Russ Keller. He's a former graduate student in financial economics with an interest in the mechanisms of state government and serves as a public service associate in the Voinovich Center.
"When it comes to ODJFS, Ohio's Amish population could have an effect on the food stamp participation rate," Keller says. "My job was to figure out a way to accurately count the Amish in each of Ohio's 88 counties, which can be difficult, and to measure the impact of the Amish population on a government social service program like food stamps."
Since no single data source reports the number of Amish and Mennonite families that have children, and have incomes below the poverty level, Keller needed to develop a methodology to determine this.
He began by researching distinguishable characteristics of the Amish using existing datasets from a multitude of sources, including Anabaptist World USA and Amish Population Estimates for Ohio Counties.
Next, Keller developed a methodology to calculate the number of non-food stamp accepting Amish and Mennonite families living below the poverty line.
Finally, he applied the methodology to calculate the impact of the Amish on food stamp participation rates.
Keller's research on the Amish population contains the only estimates of this kind, and his findings demonstrate that the Amish do have a significant impact on county-level food stamp participation rates.
The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services is pleased with Keller's work.
It sounds complicated, and it is. But it's also important. Ensuring that all who are eligible for food stamps receive them is a priority for ODJFS, and improved participation strengthens the program.
"This project significantly expanded our knowledge base concerning the Amish," Keller says. "By researching their practices and the religious legal traditions that inform their participation in social insurance programs, we gained insight into this unique population."
Brook says this was a spectacular project for Keller, "He was able to figure out how many Amish are below the poverty level and eligible for food stamps using a complicated methodology to calculate the figures.
"With this project, Russ has proven to be a very capable and thorough researcher."
The Voinovich Center provides support for local governments on a variety of issues that strengthen Ohio's communities and improve the quality of life for Ohioans. An excellent part of this mission is supporting research initiatives like Keller's.
"The mission of the Voinovich Center is to engage students and provide them with real-world experience," Brook says. "In many cases we benefit from the students participation, too. It's a very symbiotic relationship."
Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.