Amendments to DC Homeless Rights Law That Shouldn’t Be Needed, But Are

June 26, 2014

The DC Council Committee on Human Services will soon hold a hearing on a couple of bills affecting homeless families in the District. At least one — the Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act — shouldn’t be necessary. But it is.

The bill doesn’t do something else that shouldn’t be necessary, but also is. Advocates will argue strongly for an amendment. And the committee should adopt it.

The bill clarifies what the Homeless Services Reform Act means when it says families should be sheltered in a private room, if no apartment-style units are available.

A “private room,” the bill says, has to have “four non-portable walls, a ceiling and a floor that meet at the edges,” a door, with an inside lock, as its main point of access, lights that occupants can turn on and off from within the room, and so forth.

Well, whoever thought a private room was something different? Apparently the Department of Human Services.

In late January, it resorted to warehousing homeless families in recreation centers, separated from one another by flimsy partitions on the sides, but open at the top — and to anyone who felt like walking in.

Families got a reprieve when an administrative law judge ruled that the spaces weren’t rooms. Shortly thereafter, a Superior Court judge told the agency it couldn’t place any families in rec centers — at least until he issued a final decision in the case.

But the Gray administration has said it will contest the rulings, indicating that it wants to preserve the option. No surprise here, since families placed in the rec centers generally stayed only a couple of nights, if that. And others, hearing of the placements, decided not to ask for shelter.

Some I’ve heard went back to dangerous situations, including living with abusers. One mother and her children started spending nights in a stairwell again. And so the Mayor’s people concluded that the homeless family crisis was over — or had never existed.

The bill’s sponsors clearly want to put a permanent end to this form of diversion. But, as I mentioned, they’ve got more work to do.

Because long about the time DHS came up with the rec center “solution,” it also began requiring all newly-homeless families to reapply for shelter every day — and re-sheltering them for another night only if it had no legal alternative, i.e., because the outdoor temperature put them at risk of freezing to death.

The HSRA doesn’t unequivocally grant homeless families a right to remain in a shelter — or a motel room — once they’ve been placed there. This, however, had been government policy since at least 1996, shortly after the law was passed.

One can understand why. Homeless families face many risks besides freezing when they have no safe place to stay –  abuse by people in homes they’ve perforce returned to or by strangers who come upon them in stairwells, for example.

Parents can’t look for work — or keep the jobs they have — if they have to spend part of each day sitting around in the intake center.

Those who participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, as many do, can’t comply with their work preparation requirements — something you’d think would concern DHS, which has made such a much of its efforts to help “more families in making the climb to self-sufficiency.”

Bad as these things are, the harms to children are probably worse. We know that homelessness itself puts them at high risk of emotional and behavioral problems. For this reason, as well as others, many fall behind in school — and eventually drop out.

A root cause is the stress and insecurity children experience when they don’t have a stable home base. How much greater when they have to pack up every morning and don’t know where they’ll spend the night.

The big picture, of course, is that the District must do more to prevent family homelessness — and more to ensure that when it’s unpreventable, it’s brief and non-recurrent. Both will require larger investments than the Mayor and the Council seem prepared to make.

But at the very least, the Council can accord families the “dignity” of a genuine private room they can stay in until they’re able to move into an affordable place of their own.

Better for them, especially the children — and ever so much better for our community than the efforts, abortive and otherwise, to keep them out of the shelters that are supposed to protect them from harm.

 


Congress Moves Toward a Better Workforce Development System

June 23, 2014

Congress may soon do a remarkable thing — pass a significant, non-urgent bill on a bipartisan basis. We can’t be sure, of course. But advocates are justifiably hopeful.

The bill I’m referring to would reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act — the single largest source of federal funds for a broad range of programs and services that help people prepare for and find work. Or looked at another way, that provide employers with workers whose skills match their needs.

WIA hasn’t been reauthorized since it was created in 1998. Needless to say, the labor market has changed since then, as have the needs of people who want to enter it, re-enter it or move up from dead-end, low-wage jobs.

That’s not all that’s changed. State and local agencies have gained experience — not altogether happy — with the administrative complexities the current law imposes.

And experts have noted some perverse incentives, created partly — but not entirely — but funding cuts that predate the Budget Control Act caps and across-the-board cuts. Those, of course, have only made matters worse.

Most importantly perhaps, thinking about how workforce development programs should be structured has evolved. So have views on how public agencies and their contractors should be held accountable — and for what.

All of which brings us to the proposed Workforce Opportunity and Investment Act — proclaimed by key Republicans and Democrats both as a “bicameral, bipartisan … deal to improve the nation’s workforce development system.”

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Last year, House Republicans crafted — and with scant help from Democrats, passed — a bill that would have eliminated 35 WIA programs and effectively rolled the rest into a block grant, with funds frozen for seven years at the Fiscal Year 2014 level.

The effect, as the White House said, would have been to shortchange the needs of “vulnerable populations” who face “significant barriers to employment.”

So one of the best things we can say about the new bill is that the block grant is dead. The basic WIA structure remains the same, ensuring that each top-level component — job training, employment services, adult basic education and vocational rehabilitation for people with disabilities — gets funding.

At the same time — and here’s where things get interesting — states must develop a single, comprehensive plan for all “core” programs for both eligible youth and adults, including those with disabilities and those who are “dislocated,” e.g., have been laid off or soon will be.

Local Workforce Investments Boards — also sometimes known as Workforce Investment Councils — must then develop plans that align with what their state has produced.

What we see here isn’t just administrative streamlining. The unified plan requirement will tend to break down silos, e.g., between the agency that administers the one-stop employment services centers and the agency that administers adult education.

Beyond this, the bill establishes a clear preference for a career pathway approach to workforce development.

Basically, this approach involves a continuous, interlocking series of programs and services that enable participants to move from wherever they are to successively higher levels of education and employment in a particular industry or occupation that offers significant opportunities in the area where they live.

Services here may include various “needs-related payments” that enable recipients to get — and stay — on their pathways, e.g., transportation subsidies, child care. Also included are diverse hands-on work experiences, paid as well as unpaid.

More generally, the bill eliminates the current sequence of services for adults — an approach that reserves “intensive services” like job counseling for those who haven’t gotten jobs through basic, limited services and training only for those who are still unemployed, despite the intensive services.

The bill requires not only a single, unified plan, but a single set of accountability measures for all core programs serving adults and another set for youth-specific programs.

For adults, this will mean tracking participants according to various success measures. How many secure — and retain — unsubsidized employment, for example, plus their earnings. How many gain additional credentials and/or marketable skills.

Somewhat similar measures for disadvantaged youth — a category that will be broadened to include young adults up to 25 years old.

And, very importantly, results for subpopulations must be reported separately, including each group the bill defines as having a barrier (or barriers) to employment, e.g. homeless people, recipients of major safety net benefits, ex-offenders, single parents, individuals with disabilities.

This is one, though not the only way that the bill seeks to ensure sufficient attention to people for whom a job listing and perhaps some short-shot training won’t be enough for them to gain employment — let alone prospects for advancement.

Well, there’s a lot more in the bill — all 811 pages of it. And a lot of it, including what I’ve tried to summarize is very complex. So I’ll note just one other feature.

WIA authorizes Congress to spend “such sums as are necessary” — in other words, however much (or little) it chooses in any given year. Mostly how little. Funding, in real dollars, was more than 30% lower last year than in 2002.

The Workforce Opportunity and Investment Act specifies authorized, i.e., permissible, funding levels for each major component and for each of the six years it covers. These would generally bring funding back to Fiscal Year 2010 levels by Fiscal Year 2017, according to a National Skills Coalition brief.

But, as NSC also says, it’s very unlikely that programs will be funded at the authorized levels if Congress lets the caps and related cuts continue as currently mandated.

So a bipartisan, bicameral bill that’s a whole lot better than what we’ve got now, but not enough money to appropriately serve the many millions who could benefit — unless Congress does something even more remarkable.

 


“Endless Weeks of False Hope and Promises,” As Jobless Workers Grow Desperate Without Unemployment Benefits

June 18, 2014

A fellow District of Columbia resident writes, “Where to start … the abrupt termination of emergency benefits, or the endless weeks of false hope and promises.

“I have no money to get to interviews…. I also have no money for phone, no money to even keep up my personal hygiene. For over 11 years, I was steadily employed at $40K-$55K, and now I’m soon to be homeless.”

This is one of well over 2,000 stories that struggling jobless workers have shared with the Center for Effective Government.

They speak of selling belongings, including a wedding ring. They speak of living without hot water, having electricity, phone service and/or internet connections cut off — of actually becoming homeless.

And they speak of ongoing, frustrating efforts to find employment — any job at all, some say, though like my fellow District resident, many used to earn a comfortable living.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner has run the clock out on the stop-gap bill to renew Emergency Unemployment Compensation that the Senate passed in early April.

The bill covered five months of EUC benefits, back-dated to when they expired at the end of last year. So the benefits it provided would have ended more than three weeks ago.

Supporters had hoped that the bill would buy time for negotiations on a further extension. Surely justified. Notwithstanding newsworthy job growth, there are still nearly 3.4 million people who’ve been job-seeking for more than 27 weeks.

Only two state unemployment insurance programs provide benefits for this long — and none for much longer.

So at this point, more than 3 million have lost their unemployment benefits since EUC expired, as the counter House Ways and Means Democrats have posted. Look at the numbers roll — about one more worker cut off every 8 seconds, 72,000 or so a week.

Well, I don’t suppose I need to convince you of the mounting crisis — not only for jobless workers themselves, but for their families.

The question is, what will convince Speaker Boehner to let the House vote on an EUC bill? Not apparently some bipartisan job-creating measures to go with it, since he shrugged off the Secretary of Labor’s invitation to discuss what those might be.

The campaign I wrote about earlier hasn’t let up. We’ve been tweeting House Republicans weekly, urging them to tell their leader it’s time — past time actually — for a vote.

Not only the Center for Effective Government, but House Ways and Means Democrats have been collecting stories — many begging Congress for help.

Last Wednesday marked a new phase in the campaign — the first of what will be seven weekly events on the grassy triangle in front of the House side of the Capitol.

Witness Wednesdays they’re called because they center on readings of stories collected — all participants bearing witness to the suffering of our fellow Americans, who, as one of them says, are “swimming as hard as … [they] can, yet … still drowning.”

I joined the crowd for the first event. It was a heart-wrenching — and at the same time, rousing — experience, as you can see.

Thankfully, the organizers and the many other groups supporting the cause aren’t counting on touching Boehner’s heart — or if you prefer, pricking his conscience. Nor, I think, are they counting on pressure from his colleagues to get a standalone bill on the floor.

We perhaps see a glimpse of the Democrats’ strategy in a recent donnybrook in the Senate. Senator Jack Reed, who’d partnered with Senator Dean Heller to negotiate the five-month EUC bill, planned to attach a year-long renewal to the bill extending expiring tax breaks.

Republicans blocked a substantive vote on the bill because House Majority Leader Harry Reid wouldn’t allow them to add amendments.

But the tax extender bill is one of those so-called must-pass pieces of legislation. And there are others — a bill of some sort to avert a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year, for example, and another to keep funds flowing to road and public transit projects.

So we may see an EUC extension after all. Senators Reed and Heller are reportedly working on a new bill — this time, prospective only. No compensation for benefits already lost, though that might avert some further emergencies.

The challenge again is to find an offset that would satisfy most Democrats and enough Republicans to get the bill — or amendment — passed.

Because we know that Senate Republicans, as well as their House counterparts, will insist the benefits be fully paid for though they’re willing enough to extend tax breaks with no offset whatever.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking — and the number of jobless workers with no source of cash income rising. Members of Congress will go home in about six weeks and stay there until after Labor Day.

So even if EUC is ultimately resurrected, jobless workers who’ve already said they’re facing foreclosure or eviction may be homeless. And who knows how many more will find their job searches frustrated because they can’t afford gas or public transportation to get to interviews?

This is all so pathetically unnecessary. No wonder that two-thirds of American voters have a higher opinion of lice than of Congress.


DC Fitness Club Owners Again Up in Arms Over Sales Tax Expansion

June 16, 2014

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the District of Columbia faced a severe revenue shortfall. Balancing the budget — as the District, like virtually all states must — required deep program cuts, unless laws were modified to collect more taxes.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute and allies recommended, among other things, an expansion of the sales tax to at least some of the services that were perplexingly exempt — fur storage, for example, and homes-away-from-home for fur-bearing pets.

Word got out that the DC Council just might tax some of the exempt services. And next thing you knew, Councilmembers were barraged with e-mails from people who worked out at gyms and/or took for-fee yoga lessons — these orchestrated by the business owners, of course.

For this, as well as other reasons, the Council decided to increase the sales tax rate, but leave services alone.

Now we’re being treated to another round of outrage because a Council majority has voted to apply the sales tax to “health clubs,” as well as five other types of services.

This time, the sales tax expansion would partly offset revenues the District would lose by adopting other recommendations made by the Tax Revision Commission.

Most of these would cut personal income tax liabilities for low and moderate-income filers. But there’d also be a reduction in business franchise taxes — presumably a boon to the unhappy fitness club owners.

Clearly, the tax cuts must be offset. Otherwise, the District would be left with many, many millions less for essential programs and services.

And clearly, the fitness club members will have considerably more money in their pockets to pay the 5.75% tax on their dues — on average, $36.33 a month for those with adjusted gross incomes in the $50,000-$70,000 range, according to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

What’s now a $70 a month gym membership would cost an extra $4.01 — less than the cost of two short lattes at Starbucks.

But, says the Yoga Alliance, the District would be “taxing essential healthcare.” A “wellness tax,” one of the several petitions calls it. This makes about as much sense as saying that the sales tax on my daily newspaper is a tax on literacy — or informed citizenship, if you prefer.

We’re asked to worry especially about lower-income residents — people “on the fringe,” as one fitness club owner calls them.

Those folks over in the east part of the city have “ZERO full-service gyms,” exclaims another petition. And the smaller operations there “don’t need another reason to have fewer customers,” especially when obesity and diabetes rates are higher in low-income areas.

Might this have something to do with the fact that many who live there can’t afford a healthful diet, let alone a health club membership? Is there no way to get exercise except at a members-only gym or in a yoga class?

The so-called yoga tax will bring in an estimated $5 million in the first year it’s effective. Where will that $5 million come from if the fitness club folks get their way — or the additional millions in years to come?

From the “record [revenue] surpluses,” Councilmember Jack Evans says — as if we don’t have better uses for the money, e.g., affordable housing for homeless residents. As if the latest recession is the last we’ll ever have.

But it won’t be. Sooner or later, the mayor and the Council will again have a tough time balancing the budget. As always, programs that serve the needs of low-income residents will be especially vulnerable.

So, says Citizens for Tax Justice, will businesses whose goods and services aren’t exempt from the sales tax — and, of course, their customers. But there will be “less pressure to jack up the sales tax rate” if the base is broadened now.

In other words, giving the fitness club owners a free pass will shift the burden to other business owners — and to residents who’ve got no choice but to buy certain taxable items, e.g., toilet paper, soap, diapers.

All this said, I understand how the health club owners could feel picked on. As I said, their services are one of only six types the Council’s plan would tax.

The group seems to me oddly arbitrary — carpet cleaning, home water delivery, car washes, billiards parlors and bowling alleys, storage locker rentals, plus tanning studios, which are lumped together with health clubs.

An expert retained by the Tax Revision Commission identified these — apparently because he thought they’d be difficult for residents to purchase untaxed. But he also recommended two the Council will leave tax-exempt, unless the package changes before the final vote.

Notwithstanding the rationale, I find the choices over-selective. People who have to store their belongings because they’ve lost their homes will pay the sales tax. People who store their fur coats still won’t.

People who have their cars washed will pay the sales tax. People who have their dogs washed still won’t. People who go bowling will pay the sales tax. People who go to the ballet still won’t.

Merely examples from a list that’s perhaps a bit outdated, but still fairly accurate. There are more than eighty tax-exempt services on it.

Seems to me the better approach would have been to begin with the presumption that services would be taxed and then selectively exempt those for which there’s a compelling reason. Health club memberships wouldn’t qualify in my book, but bona fide healthcare would.

 

 


Millions of People Living Always on the Margin

June 12, 2014

Nearly 50 years ago, Molly Orshansky, who invented our official poverty measure, noted that when the number of people below the applicable poverty threshold rose, the number just above dropped. And then the reverse happened.

“This reciprocal trend,” she wrote, “suggests that there may be a sizable group in the population living always on the margin — wavering between dire poverty and a level only slightly higher but never really free from the threat of deprivation.”

A recent report from the Census Bureau confirms this insight. Or so it seems.

What we know for sure is that, in 2011-12, virtually the same number of people who were near-poor at the beginning fell into poverty as rose above the Bureau’s near-poverty cut-off, i.e., 125% of the applicable poverty threshold.

Fewer than either remained in the near-poverty group for even this brief period. So many people are indeed on the margin — 14.7 million in 2012. And if past is prologue, almost as many will plunge (or plunge back) into dire poverty as will gain more than brief freedom from the threat of deprivation.

This is only one of the interesting things the report tells us. The other big eye-opener, for me, is that the near-poverty rate doesn’t behave like the poverty rate.

The latter is always considerably higher — 15%, as compared in 4.7% in 2012. But the poverty rate swings up and down as recessions set in and end. The near-poverty rate barely registers the downturns and upturns in our economy.

Here’s another difference. The poverty rate for seniors, according to the official measure, is much lower than the rate for children — 9.1%, as compared to 21.8% in 2012. But the near-poverty rates were statistically the same.

In other ways, the near-poverty rates resemble differences in poverty rates among groups the Census Bureau reports on, but only in a very general way.

For example, in 2012, the near-poverty rate for blacks was higher than the rate for whites — 6.3%, as compared to 4.5%. But the poverty rate gap was more than twice as great — 27.2%, as compared to 12.7%.

Similarly, the near-poverty rate for single-mother families was higher than the rate for married couples — 7.3%, as compared to 2.8%. But again the gap was far wider for their respective poverty rates — 30.9%, as compared to 6.3%.

What this means, of course, is that fewer blacks and single mothers were living on the margin because more were officially poor, which is very poor indeed.

This is also the case for working-age people not in the labor force, including those with severe disabilities. The poverty rate for those neither working nor actively looking for work was 28.4%, while their near-poverty rate was 6.7%.

These are only a few examples of comparative rates, based on the latest published Census figures. The near-poverty rate report also compares rates for 2012 with those for 1966, when Orshansky published her paper.

Overall, the near-poverty rate dropped, though only by 1.6%. And it dropped enough to be statistically significant for virtually every group the report breaks out.

The exceptions related to changes in our labor market. Specifically, the near-poverty rate for adults over 25 with less than a high school diploma or the equivalent was 1.8% higher in 2012.

Rates were also higher for adults in this age group at every education level below a four-year college degree or more. For those with the degree(s), the very low near-poverty rate was effectively the same — 1.2%.

And what about our safety net? Census can’t backtrack to 1966, but it does provide figures for the number of near-poor people who benefited from six major programs — or types of programs — in 1981.

We see significant changes in the number and percent of near-poor people served between the baseline year and 2012 for only four. And only one of them represents a decrease.

In 2012, 9.9% fewer near-poor people received public assistance, i.e., cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program* and/or one of the dwindling state general assistance programs.

Near-poor participation in SNAP (the food stamp program) increased by the same percent. But the increase for the Earned Income Tax Credit was larger — 12.5%. And it’s the only safety net program Census reports on that benefited more near-poor than poor people.

The program with the greatest reach of all was the free and reduced-price part of the school lunch program. In 2012, it served 84.6% of near-poor children and a barely higher 88.5% of children in poverty. For the near-poor, this represents a 16.6% increase over 1981.

By and large, I think these changes, as well as the raw participation figures tend to confirm studies indicating that safety net spending has shifted toward people who, for one reason or another, are viewed as deserving — adults who work and those who can’t be expected to.

More conclusively, the report confirms the fragile hold on even a modicum of income security that Professor Mark Rank, among others, has sought to demonstrate — and that Orshansky flagged so long ago.

* TANF hadn’t replaced welfare as we knew it in 1981. So the comparison is to its predecessor.


Bill Aims to Stop Child Summer Hunger

June 9, 2014

As my last post said, the summer meal programs subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reach only a fraction of children whose family incomes are low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year.

So a far larger number are at risk of hunger — and their parents more so because they go without to keep their children fed, as they themselves say and USDA food insecurity data confirm.

No one, I hope, would argue that we ought to do away with the summer meal programs, though you never can tell, these days. But both their track record and inherent limits suggest they’re not the sole answer to summertime hunger.

Senator Patty Murray has introduced a bill — the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act — that could very well do what its title says. At the same time, it would reduce, if not altogether avert what’s probably more common parent hunger.

Basically, the bill would provide families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals with the cost equivalent of free breakfasts and lunches during the summer break.

Their summer food budget supplement would be loaded onto an electronic benefits transfer card like the EBT card now used for SNAP (food stamp) benefits — and in some states, also WIC benefits.

This would initially give families an extra $150 per school-age child for the summer. As with SNAP, they could use their cards only to purchase food and non-alcoholic beverages.

Stipends would be adjusted to keep pace with USDA’s school meal reimbursement rates, which are subject to annual adjustments based on a Consumer Price Index for “food away from home,” i.e., the costs of foods and beverages purchased in restaurants, carry-outs and the like.

Murray’s proposal builds on a USDA-funded project to explore alternative ways of bridging gaps in regular school meal programs.

You may have read about it recently because Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee caused quite a flap in certain left-leaning quarters when they restricted the next phase to rural counties in the Appalachian region.

Senator Murray is apparently satisfied with the results of the initial pilot — as well she might be. The evaluation team found, among many things, that the summer EBT cards, providing basically the same benefit her bill would, reduced very low food security among children by 33%.

Translated from USDA-speak, this means that nearly a third of the children who’d otherwise at least sometimes literally not have had enough to eat didn’t go hungry. And they ate more good things like fruits and veggies too.

A veritable host of major organizations have endorsed the Murray bill. Doubtful, however, that it will go anywhere at this point — not because it would add to the deficit (heaven forefend), but in part because of the way Murray would pay for it.

Specifically, her bill would offset the estimated $42 billion 10-year cost by closing a corporate tax loophole that enables multinationals to deduct interest they pay on debt they take on to finance offshore operations before they report any related income on their U.S. tax returns — assuming they ever do.

One can hardly expect multinationals to hold their fire — or “business-friendly” members of Congress either.

Beyond this, as Rob Hotakainen at McClatchyDC notes, some members of Congress don’t much care for the subsidized school meal programs the Murray bill would complement.

Recall Congressman Paul Ryan’s embarrassingly untrue story of the child who longed for a brown-bag lunch lovingly prepared by his mom.

And, less widely reported, the “evidence” his War on Poverty report cited for impacts of the school lunch program — only possible contributions to child obesity.

Well, the Child Nutrition Act is due for renewal next year. This will give Congress a chance to review and perhaps revise the Summer Food Service Program, as well as eight other programs that aim to ensure that children are healthy and hunger-free, as the title of the current law says.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like the Murray bill folded into larger proposals for strengthening the CNA programs.

It would be a good addition to — not substitute for — measures to strengthen the summer meal programs, which got short shrift last time round, as the Food Research and Action Center has noted.

But whether Congress will be inclined to expand the CNA is, at best, an open question.

 

 


Summer Brings Hunger, Despite Free Meal Programs for Children

June 5, 2014

“I usually do, in the summertime, go without eating, says Jean C., one of the Witnesses to Hunger. She tells her kids she’ll eat later, but the oldest has caught on.

Summer is always an especially difficult time for low-income parents with school-age children.

During most of the school year, their kids get free or reduced-price lunches. A growing number also get no-cost or low-cost breakfasts. They may get an after-school snack — or even supper — if they stay to participate in an “educational or enrichment” activity, e.g. tutoring, a photography class.

But summer rolls round. Now parents have to stretch their budgets to serve three squares a day, every day — and like as not, something in between.

Not surprisingly, Census surveys have found higher rates of food insecurity among families with school-age children during summer months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers two summer meal programs designed to address this problem — one only for schools that provide subsidized lunches during the school year and one for nonprofits and government agencies generally.

With some exceptions, subsidies are available only to programs in areas where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals — or (extra paperwork here) to those that can show that half the children they serve do.

But meals are free to all participating children. And USDA’s more inclusive program — the Summer Food Service Program — reimburses at somewhat higher rates than for free school breakfasts and lunches during the school year.

The summer meal programs are doing better than in recent years, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s just-released status report. But better isn’t all that great.

Nationwide, the programs served more than 2.9 million children during July 2013 — 15.1% of children who’d received free or reduced-price lunches during the prior school year.

This is surely better than July 2012, when they served 14.3%. The higher rate, however, reflects not only an increase in the number of children served, but a smaller decrease in the number who’d received free or reduced-price lunches.

And it’s still lower than rates before 2010, when a downward trend had already set in. By way of comparison, the rate was 20.8% in 2002.

FRAC cites recession-related budget cuts to programs that commonly serve subsidized summer meals — both summer school and a variety of others, e.g., arts and crafts classes at public recreation centers, daytime soccer camps.

Even so, only about one in five children who might have gone hungry — or more likely, caused their parents to — benefited from a summer meal program more than five years before the Great Recession set in.

This suggests other limits. So do FRAC’s more recent participation rate breakouts, which consistently show wide variations among states — in the latest case, ranging from 30.4% in New Mexico to 4.5% in Oklahoma.

First off, the SFSP hinges on sponsors to launch and operate programs — and so on interest, organizational capacities and resources the subsidies don’t provide. And so-called area eligibility, i.e., the 50% rule I mentioned above, tends to limit where they can locate their programs.

Summer meals are said to help draw children into worthwhile activities. But I’ve been told the opposite is also true.

In other words, sponsors generally need to offer activities with some appeal because the prospects of something free to eat aren’t a sufficient magnet. Or perhaps they might be, but carry a stigma the activities counteract.

Sponsors and other community organizations need to let families know what the programs offer and where — seemingly obvious, but only 40% of low-income families recently surveyed knew where free summer meal sites were located.

Transportation to program sites is a problem, especially in rural areas. Elsewhere also, since 40% of the food-insecure parents surveyed — not nearly all of them rural — cited lack of transportation as a reason their children didn’t participate in a summer meal program.

There’s a whole other kind of limit. FRAC tells us that July is generally the peak month for summer meal programs. In other words, many don’t operate from the time schools close to the time they open again.

So presumably parents of many of those more than 2.9 million children had to come up with the three squares a day during some good part of the summer vacation.

All of which is to say that USDA’s summer meal programs, fine as they are, may not be the solution to hunger for parents like Jean — and in worse cases, their children.

They could get help from a bill recently introduced in Congress — of which more in my next post.


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