More Seniors Facing Hunger Nationwide and in DC

March 17, 2014

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve come upon the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and its latest annual report on (what else?) hunger among seniors in the U.S.

The report encompasses all seniors facing what NFESH calls the “threat of hunger,” i.e., people 60 and over who are, at best, “marginally food secure.” These are seniors who answered in the affirmative to at least one of the survey questions the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses to measure food security or lack thereof.

In 2011, there were 8.8 million seniors who did — 15.2% of the age group.

But 6.7 million of them — 11.6% of the age group — weren’t just teetering on the brink of food insecurity. They were either what NFESH terms at “risk of hunger” or “facing hunger,” i.e., sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

The percents of seniors in these two categories were somewhat lower than what USDA reported for the U.S. population as a whole and also lower than what it reported for adults.

But while USDA’s results were statistically the same as for 2010, the percent of seniors facing hunger rose by more than 15% — to about 1.9 million.

Over the longer haul, both the risk of hunger and hunger itself have trended upward for seniors. Since 2007, when the recession set in, the number of seniors at risk of hunger increased by 49% and the number facing hunger by 48%.

Increases since 2001 were 109% and 200% respectively. The increase for the broader threat of hunger category was lower. So what we seem to be seeing is a worsening hunger situation that can’t be attributed to the economic misfortunes of the recession alone.

Both risk of and actual hunger can be attributed largely to lack of income, of course. Nearly 73% of seniors in these two categories lived below the poverty line. And of these, nearly 41% faced hunger.

As with the poverty rate itself, rates of hunger risk and actual hunger were markedly higher for blacks and Hispanics than for non-Hispanic whites.

For black seniors, the risk of hunger rate was 17.2% and the actual hunger rate 6.8%, as compared to 7.5% and 2.9% for non-Hispanic white seniors. Rates for Hispanic seniors were highest — 18.2% and just under 7%.

Rates were also very high for seniors with disabilities. About 26% were at risk of hunger, and more than 11.5% faced hunger. These figures are, in a general way, consistent with USDA’s findings on food insecurity in households with a working-age disabled member.

They’re also consistent with the extraordinarily high poverty rates consistently reported for people with disabilities in the same 18-64 age range — 27.6% in 2011, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. This is nearly twice as high as the rate for their counterparts without disabilities.

The NFESH hunger rates also, in a general way, correspond to poverty rates geographically. Virtually all the states with the highest hunger risk and actual hunger rates are in the South and Southwest.

The hunger rates don’t altogether track poverty rates, however. For example, the senior poverty rate in the District of Columbia was higher than in all but one state during the 2009-11 period — 23.2%, according to SPM.

Yet both the District’s risk of hunger and actual hunger rates were lower than those of all but nine states — 6.2% and 1.8% respectively.

No cause for celebration here, especially when the hunger rate is notably higher than in 2010. But the figures do suggest that efforts to enroll eligible seniors in SNAP (the food stamp program) and a robust network of emergency food programs make a difference.

They’re also a red flag, as are the nationwide figures. Last November, all SNAP recipients lost a portion of their benefits. The maximum for seniors living alone, as most in the NFESH hunger category seem to be, is now $11 a month less than it was before, leaving them with about $2.07 per meal.

Some SNAP recipients — seniors as well as others — will soon take a second hit because the new Farm Bill restricts the so-called “heat and eat” option, which the District and 15 states have used to boost the value of SNAP benefits, mainly for households whose utility costs are covered in their rent.

Six states have decided to protect their residents from the latest cut by increasing the heating assistance they provide to the $20 million the Farm Bill sets.

Seems to me that the District should do the same. Back-of-the-envelope calculation, based on the latest SNAP household figure, suggests this would cost a bit over $1.6 million a year — hardly a budget-breaker for a city that’s looking forward to more than $6.3 billion in revenues this fiscal year and nearly $6.7 billion next FY.

What NFESH reports for seniors is true for people of all ages. Food insecurity has a wide range of adverse health impacts. Bad for kids in other ways too.

Restoring SNAP benefits would more than pay off in healthcare and other savings, revenues generated by increased local spending and greater well-being for a whole lot of vulnerable people.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, Stateline reported that seven states have said they will block the cuts that would otherwise result from the new “heat and eat” threshold. It says the District will as well. Responding to a survey, some unidentified source said D.C. would “find a solution,” without specifying where the money would come from.

The estimated cost is lower than what I calculated — less than $1.4 million, including what the District has been spending on “utility aid.”


SNAP Cut Bad, But Defeat of Farm Bill Would Have Risked Much Worse

February 5, 2014

Last Friday, the House passed the new Farm Bill that conferees had lengthily negotiated. Most Democrats voted against it. The Senate passed the bill yesterday, with twice as many Democrats as Republicans voting in favor. The White House has said the President will sign it.

So it’s a done deal. Some agricultural interests, e.g., rice and peanut farmers, are celebrating. Virtually no one else, I think, is altogether happy — and certainly not those of us who advocate for strong safety net programs.

Some anti-hunger advocates had urged Congress members to defeat the bill because, as I’m sure you know, it includes a cut in SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

But in this case, I think a victory could well have paved the way for a more devastating defeat. So I’m disappointed, but at the same time relieved.

What If the Farm Bill Hadn’t Passed?

The cut amounts to $8.6 billion over 10 years. It’s achieved by establishing a new restriction on a provision commonly known as “heat and eat.” An estimated 850,000 households — 1.7 million people — will lose, on average, $90 a month in SNAP benefits.

Like other advocates, I’d have much preferred a Farm Bill that increased SNAP benefits, which were too low even before earlier decisions by Congress resulted in benefits losses last November.

But the Farm Bill could have been far, far worse, as the standalone nutrition part the House passed shows. It would have reduced SNAP funding by at least $39 billion over 10 years. SomeĀ  3.8 million people would have lost their benefits entirely.

And the House bill included some other truly pernicious provisions, including an incentive for states to deny SNAP benefits to as many low-income jobless adults as possible. Their children also.

These provisions are all gone, with one limited exception. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives the details, plus a section-by-section summary of the whole nutrition part of the bill.

What would we have seen next year if majorities in the House and Senate had rejected the Farm Bill? I wouldn’t have wanted to chance it, given the iffy prospects for continuing Democratic control of the Senate.

This is why I concur with the bottom line reached by CBPP President Robert Greenstein.

He too would like to have seen higher SNAP benefits and/or other changes that would raise them for households with extremely high housing costs, but believes the compromise is the best we were likely to get.

Even if Republicans don’t gain a majority in the Senate, the “heat and eat” restriction could have worked its way into an annual appropriations bill if the Farm Bill hadn’t been reauthorized — or perhaps imposed through regulation.

As Greenstein says, the provision would have been tightened sooner or later because it “won’t withstand public scrutiny.”

What Is This “Heat and Eat” Business Anyway?

As I’ve written before, the “heat and eat” provision allows states to apply a standard utility allowance, i.e., an assumed cost for basic utilities, when they calculate a household’s shelter costs if the household received a benefit from the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program.

In some cases, this results in a larger SNAP benefit than households would otherwise receive because it boost their shelter costs over 50% of their income.

The provision was originally intended to simplify administration, since receipt of a LIHEAP benefit clearly indicated that a household was paying — or trying to pay — its utility bills, rather than paying them as a portion of its rent and that it just as clearly was struggling with “excess shelter costs.”

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have taken advantage of the “heat and eat” option. They provide a minimal LIHEAP benefit — a rock-bottom 10 cents in California — to maximize the SNAP benefits their residents qualify for, including those whose utility costs are folded into their rent.

One would be hard put, I think, to deny that they’re exploiting a loophole, though for the best of reasons. Utility costs are often high, whether paid directly or indirectly. And LIHEAP funding doesn’t enable states to help all who need it — fewer indeed than it used to.

So some SNAP households really do have to choose between heating and eating. More generally, as I’ve already said, SNAP benefits are too low — even at the maximum levels.

Congress nevertheless intended the “heat and eat” provision to reduce paperwork burdens, not give states a way to boost benefits.

The new Farm Bill doesn’t do away with the provision altogether. But it does close the loophole. States can still apply the SUA based on a LIHEAP benefit, but only for households that receive at least $20 a year — the threshold in the original House bill.

Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. I believe this was the best possible outcome, given what House Republicans had put on the table — and what might well have become law if the Farm Bill had gone back to the drawing board.

A sad conclusion nonetheless.


Washington Post Launches Sneak Attack on Food Stamp Recipients

December 19, 2013

Well, leave it to the Washington Post to find a family receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits that reinforces just about every aspect of the “welfare” stereotype.

Not quite every aspect because the mother doesn’t use illegal drugs, though her parents did. But she does apparently spend a fair amount of money on cigarettes.

Now, there are some positive aspects to the story. We learn, for example, that the mother has figured out some ingenious ways to cut the family’s electricity bills, e.g., by taking the light bulb out of the refrigerator.

She’s organized. Has a schedule of free food distributions attached to the refrigerator door. She has a sense of personal dignity, which she communicates to her children. They all have to look their best when they head out to the food pantries.

And she’s a generous soul. She feeds not only herself and her own children, but two nieces, whose mother tends to disappear, and some others who drop in.

On her way back from a food pantry, she gives one of the half dozen breakfast pastries she’s just gotten to a homeless woman who pleads for help.

We’re also given to understand that she’s unable to work because of ailments that either materialized or were exacerbated when she worked two jobs and lived in a freezing-cold house because she couldn’t afford to pay the gas bills, jobs notwithstanding.

But the story still betrays the Post‘s hostility to present-day “entitlements” and its embrace of the standard conservative view that safety net programs foster dependency.

Lack of what conservatives call “personal responsibility” too. How else to explain why the Post chose to focus story solely on a woman who has six children, fathered by five different men, none of whom stuck around very long?

Or on her eldest daughter, who’s unemployed and not much inclined to continue looking for work?

Okay. It’s a true story — and meticulously reported, so far as we can tell. But how representative is it? Not very.

For example, SNAP households with children have an average of only 3.4 members. Well over half have at least one member working in a typical month, except in cases where there’s no one who’s working-age and not disabled.

The number of SNAP households with earnings has, in fact, risen markedly over the last 10 or so years — at least in part because so many jobs don’t pay enough for families to have a net income over the poverty line.

Nevertheless, only slightly over a quarter of participants stay in the program for two consecutive years or more, according to the latest data analysis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By contrast, the mother the Post profiles has participated for all but nine months of her life.

What got me going, however, is the Post‘s eagerness to support both the recent SNAP cuts and those that House and Senate negotiators are working on now.

The Post rightly notes that SNAP spending has risen markedly — as one would expect a responsive safety net program to do during a recession as bad as the last.

But it fails to acknowledge that spending, as a share of our economy, has fallen — and that it’s expected to continue falling for at least five years, when it will reach about the same share as in 1995.

Even in Fiscal Year 2013, before the recent cuts, the total spent on SNAP benefits was only 2% of the federal budget.

Moreover, the Post simply misstates the reason for the recent SNAP cuts. They were, it says, “the beginning of an attempt by Congress to dramatically shrink” the program.

In point of fact, Congress raided the out-years of the SNAP benefits boost in the Recovery Act to partly offset the costs of some additional fiscal aid to the states and again as an offset for improvements in child nutrition programs.

No one, to my knowledge, was talking then about the cuts as a step toward “a cultural transformation,” which, as the Post explains, would “wean the next generation from a cycle of long-term dependency.”

We’re hearing this sort of language now, of course — from right-wingers in Congress and think tanks that supply their talking points.

Perhaps the Post‘s as well. Or maybe it’s coincidence that we find the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation beating the drums about explosive SNAP spending and pernicious dependency.

All I’m sure of is that the Post could easily have found a couple who couldn’t feed their toddler without SNAP because the breadwinner is jobless and unable to find work.

It might have focused on one of the 3,900 or so veterans in the District whose SNAP benefits were recently cut. Not an either/or choice here, obviously.

Or it could instead have profiled a single mom who’s fully self-sufficient and, by any common standard, successful because “welfare” programs like SNAP enabled her to go to college. I know of two who are serving in Congress now.

Or it could simply have told the story of how one poor family is struggling to make the best of a bad situation made worse by the loss of about 15% of its already-low SNAP benefits.

In any case, it could have reserved its editorializing for the editorial page, where such things belong.


My Blog Turns Five, Looks Back and Forward

December 9, 2013

Today is my blog’s fifth birthday — not an event that would have been part of my long-range plan, if I’d had one.

I’ll spare you the back story. Let’s just say that I got impatient with a blog administrator who left my time-sensitive posts languishing in the queue — so impatient that one day I said to myself, [expletive deleted] I’ll start my own blog.

I had no idea that it would become so important to me as a structure for learning — and an avenue to people who know a whole lot more than I do and achieve far more than I could ever hope to.

As I said last year on this auspicious date, I’m grateful for them, the discipline the blog provides and you who read what I post.

But this is all personal stuff. So let me share a broad-brush of what I think when I look at my earliest posts in light of what I’m following — and sometimes writing about — now.

My very first post took the DC Council to task for hurriedly cutting funds for affordable housing and, at the same time, rescinding a modest increase in benefits for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Both were prompted by a projected drop in revenues — a problem state and local governments across the country were grappling with because we were sunk in the Great Recession.

No one then, I think knew how bad the recession would be — or that the labor market would remain in such bad shape for so long after it was officially over.

The District’s revenue stream has more than recovered, however. And happily, we who advocate for the interests of low-income residents no longer have to expend all our energies protesting imminent spending cuts.

Yet the source of the steady revenue increases has, in some ways, made life tougher for them because it’s due largely to an influx of high-earners. Their housing demands — and decisions to accommodate them — have driven up housing costs, especially for low-income renters.

And the District — understandably perhaps — is far readier to invest in things that will make high-earning taxpayers and business interests happy than to provide a secure, sufficient safety net and other income supports for residents who, for a variety of reasons, can’t afford basic living costs.

True, the DC Council recently put more money into affordable housing — $9.75 million more for vouchers this fiscal year. And it’s approved the Mayor’s one-time $100 million commitment to affordable housing construction and preservation. How much the latter will benefit the very lowest-income residents remains to be seen.

The Council is now considering a benefits increase for TANF families — about $16 more, in real dollars, than the one it pulled back, but still not enough to lift a families of three out of severe poverty.

In the meantime, it’s set in motion benefits cuts, leading to zero for most families who’ve been in the program for more than five years, even if the parents can’t find jobs that pay enough to sustain themselves and their children — a likely prospect for many, given what it costs “to get by” in D.C.

The District nevertheless isn’t engaged in more safety-net cutting. Not something one can say for some of the “red” states like Kansas.

Nor, like them, has it refused to expand its Medicaid program — a political decision on their parts that leaves a total of more than 4.8 million of their poorest residents without health insurance.

So on the local front, things could be better, from a poverty policy perspective, but a whole lot worse too.

Turning now to nearby Capitol Hill, I don’t know what to say that you don’t already know. But I feel I must say something to round out this selective review. So …

The economy was a whole lot worse when my blog was born, but I believe many of us had hope for positive change when President Obama was sworn in less than two months later.

And we did, in fact, soon get a package of measures to mitigate the personal hardships and other harms the recession was causing, while at the same time, kick-starting a recovery.

But there’s been a huge ground shift since then, due largely to right-wing Republican victories in the 2010 Congressional elections — and the Democrats’ defensive reactions.

No one, to my knowledge, believes we’ll see any genuine job-creating investments now — or additional investments in training and education that could improve prospects for some of the many millions of jobless workers.

Even an extension of the pared-back unemployment benefits for long-term jobless workers is reportedly iffy, though not to the point we should throw in the towel.

Another of the 2009 measures — the temporary SNAP (food stamp) benefits boost — has already prematurely bitten the dust.

And House and Senate negotiators are trying to strike a deal that would, at the very least, cut benefits further for well over half a million families — a compromise that House Majority Leader John Boehner reportedly won’t accept.

Other negotiators are trying to find common ground for a budget plan that would afford some relief from sequestration.

But no one at the table is looking to reverse earlier cuts to key affordable housing programs — let alone fund them and homeless assistance grants at levels consistent with rising costs and needs.

And the best we can hope for TANF, it seems, is another extension of the never-increased block grant, which is now worth 32% less than when the program was created.

To borrow from several blogging wits, our federal leaders are afflicted by deficit attention disorder.

And so long as that’s true, neither the District nor other state and local governments can effectively meet the diverse needs of their poor and near-poor residents, even if they want to.

Not a happy birthday thought. But I know I’m prone to gloom, as well as impatience.


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