New Proof That SNAP Benefits Are Too Low

September 25, 2014

As Hunger Action Month draws to a close, I’m recurring to what some of you followers may understandably view as an obsession — the need to increase SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Two recent reports by U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers provide further proof.

Food Insecurity, Despite SNAP

As you may have read, USDA reported that 14.3% of American households — about 17.5 million — were food insecurity during at least part of 2013. At least 8 million had incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP.* And 53% of them received SNAP benefits during the entire year.

In other words, by definition, they didn’t always have “access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” benefits notwithstanding. They didn’t all suffer from hunger, however, because a household may be food insecure if it recurrently can’t afford balanced meals for everyone.

But 23.9% of them had what USDA calls “very low food security.” This means that at least one member, at least some of the time had to skimp on or altogether skip meals because the household didn’t have the resources to buy enough food, healthful or otherwise.

Both the overall food insecurity and the “very low food security” rates for SNAP households are somewhat higher than the 2012 rates. And those were somewhat higher than the 2011 rates.

Food Costs and SNAP Benefits

The households surveyed for the food (in)security report spent, on average, $50 per person per week for food — somewhat over $6.00 more per person than what the maximum SNAP benefit for a three-member household would have covered.

USDA provides a better — if somewhat oblique — measure of the adequacy of SNAP benefits by using the costs of its Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining those benefits.

Adjusting for household size and the age/gender configurations used for the market baskets the TFP comprises, researchers found that the typical food secure household spent 21% more for food than the TFP cost.

Another study by USDA researchers focused on whether adults who received SNAP benefits drank more high-calories beverages than other low-income adults. The full answer (behind a paywall, alas) is that they didn’t.

I mentioned the study here because, as the Food Research and Action Center helpfully reports, the average SNAP recipient surveyed lived in a household whose monthly benefits typically fell $209 short of what it spent on food.

All told, 81% of the recipients surveyed spent more on food than their SNAP benefits covered — obviously, a whole lot more in many cases. The average household’s benefits covered somewhat less than 58% of its monthly food bills.

As you may recall, Congress cut all SNAP benefits by using for other purposes funds the Recovery Act had allocated for a boost. The boost was originally supposed to last until the customary food-cost adjustments to SNAP benefits caught up with it.

The cuts went into effect last November. So they probably aren’t reflected in the food insecurity figures I cited above — or, I would guess, in the shortfalls the beverage survey found.

A Long-Standing Problem

We’ve had evidence that SNAP benefits are insufficient — and why — for a goodly number of years.

FRAC has repeatedly cited defects in the TFP — unrealistically low costs among them. It’s been raising this issue since the early 1990s, when it cited state and local studies showing that the actual costs of the TFP were higher for low-income families than the cost USDA set.

A two-city study conducted in 2007 found that a family of four receiving the maximum SNAP benefit would have had to come up with $2,500 more a year in the lower-cost city — and $3,165 in the higher-cost city — to cover the costs of foods in the TFP.

And, as a wrote awhile ago, a committee of National Research Council and Institute of Medicine experts conclude that one of the key assumptions built into the TFP is “out of synch” with the way most families put food on the table today — and inferentially, with the way many SNAP recipients can.

None of this seems to make a whit of difference to our federal policymakers. Witness the Farm Bill Congress recently passed — and what it might have passed if Republicans had controlled the Senate. But maybe some day ….

* The 8 million are households with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income maximum for SNAP. The USDA report uses this percent of the FPL as the cut-off for reporting SNAP participation. But 27 states and the District of Columbia have exercised an option to raise their gross income cut-offs. So there may actually have been more food insecure SNAP households.

 

 


Only Conservatives Value Work and Other Insights From AEI Safety Net Panel

September 22, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, the American Enterprise Institute hosted — and provided most of the members for — a panel discussion entitled “How Conservatives Can Save the Safety Net.” My first thought when I got the invitation was, “Well, they could stop slashing it.”

But I decided to find out what those right-leaning — but not radically right-wing — Republicans had in mind. Not, I’m sorry to say, a whole lot that we haven’t heard before. The panel discussion was nevertheless interesting — in part, as a phenomenon.

AEI, as well as some other Republican-friendly organizations — and some decidedly right-wing Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan — have decided that the party needs rebranding. This is also clearly the case for some Republican Presidential hopefuls.

So we see a lot of effort invested in coming up with proposals — or the makings thereof — that will convince voters the party truly cares about struggling Americans and would do more for them than Democrats.

Whatever the motives, we who lean leftward have good reasons to look for common ground — the likely results of the upcoming elections among them. And the AEI panel, as well as some earlier trial balloons, suggest there is some.

So the most striking thing to me was how the panelists appropriated to conservatives some basic principles that progressives generally share — and at the same time, shifted us into the opposing camp.

For example, Tim Carney, the panel’s moderator, said that conservatives “value work” — a “major division” between them and “the left.” Other panelists seized on the theme.

Work confers “human dignity,” Scott Wilson said, including work “in the home,” i.e., not for pay. Robert Doar, a fellow AEI scholar and champion of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, didn’t expressly disagree, but added, “We want people to engage in the larger society,” clearly referring to the labor force.

Well, who among us would disagree? And who would disagree with Doar when he said that if work doesn’t pay enough to meet families’ needs, we should “provide support?”

The true divide here is Doar’s advocacy for rigid time limits because they “get people to face up to the need to address their own issues.” He’s also a true believer in sanctions, i.e., benefits cuts (or cut-offs) when parents “don’t behave a certain way.”

“We [in the TANF programs he administered in New York] “treat people as having agency,” while “so much of the left treats them as victims,” implying that we’re not “hopeful for human resources.”

I don’t suppose we’ll find common ground on time limits — or on the notion that dispensing benefits should empower caseworkers to coerce people into behaving however they’re told to.

But saying we don’t recognize the value of work or the multifarious capacities of parents who’ve perforce turned to welfare will hardly promote a conversation on issues of common concern.

One surely ought to be the shortage of decent-paying jobs that people without a college education and/or high-level skills can qualify for — and the relatively little money that most TANF programs spend on “work activities” like job training.

Also that “support” Doar refers to for parents who move from welfare to work, but can’t afford basic living costs, which, for them, include work-related expenses like transportation and child care.

Scott Winship, the lone non-AEI panelist, flagged another (not unrelated) issue. “Upward mobility has basically stagnated,” he said. But, he continued, “liberals overstate parental income” as a factor in the next generation’s chances of moving up the income scale.

Versus what factor(s) he didn’t say. Nor why we should discount the research showing that children born at the bottom of the scale tend to stay there — or pretty near. But might there be factors we could converge on?

For example, he mentioned efforts to move more people into — and through — college. “Preparedness is a problem,” he said. That’s surely the case, though costs also limit both the “into” and the “through.”

Another potential basis for conversation — yes, I know this may surprise you — is marriage. Panelists, as well as some other conservative scholars, have seemingly taken to heart the research showing that marriage promotion programs don’t work.

And they recognize, as one said, that many means-tested programs “unintentionally penalize marriage” because when two people who both have incomes marry, their household income will, in some cases, reduce or altogether eliminate their benefits.

Does this mean that conservatives would support the President’s proposal to make the temporary mitigation of the marriage penalty in the Earned Income Tax Credit permanent? Not a peep from the panelists.

Nor specific answers to what they think conservatives should do about any of the other issues they teed up.

Lots of interesting back and forth. But much of it, I felt, was exploring ways Republicans could talk so as to persuade doubting voters they really do care about the (less than) 47% who don’t earn enough to owe federal income taxes — and that Democrats are a bunch of clueless bleeding hearts.

Hence the deliberately — and misleadingly — divisive rhetoric. Disappointing, especially from an organization that claims to pursue its ideals “without regard for politics.”


How Does DC Stack Up Against States?

September 18, 2014

A few additional factoids from the new Census Bureau figures — all reinforcing the acute income divide I’ve already remarked on.

On the one hand, the median income for households in the District was higher than the medians in all but four states. Neighboring Maryland had the highest — $72,483. The District’s was $4,911 lower.

On the other hand, only five states had higher poverty rates than the District. And the District tied with Alabama for the sixth highest child poverty rate. Pretty remarkable when you consider that Alabama had the fourth lowest median income.


DC Poverty Rate Rises to Nearly 19%

September 18, 2014

I was all set to write that the poverty rate for the District of Columbia dipped down last year, just as the official national rate had. But no, according to the just-released results of the American Community Survey.

The District’s poverty rate increased from 18.2% in 2012 to 18.9% in 2013,  Or so it seems. The increase is small enough increase to fall within the margin of error.*

Here’s more of what we’ve got, plus a few remarks here and there.

The Big Picture

The new poverty rate means that approximately 115,630 District residents lived on less than the very low applicable poverty threshold — just $23,624 for a two-parent, two-child family or about 26% of the family’s basic living costs in the D.C. area.

The rate is 2.5% higher than in 2007, just before the recession set in. It is also 3.1% higher than the 2013 national rate.

The deep poverty rate, i.e., the percent of residents living below half the applicable income threshold, was 10.3%. In other words, somewhat over 63,000 residents were devastatingly poor, especially when we consider the high costs of living in the District.

Young and Old

As in the past, the child poverty rate was much higher than the overall rate — 27.2%. This means that about 29,740 D.C. children were officially poor — well over half of them (16.2%) deeply so.

Both the total and the deep poverty rates for children were slightly higher than in 2012 — in both cases, by less than 1%. But they were considerably higher than in 2007, when the child poverty rate was 22.7% and the deep poverty rate for children 12%.

They were also both higher than the national rates. These, according to the ACS, were 22.2% and 9.9%.

Seniors had lower poverty and deep poverty rates — 17.5% and 4.5% respectively. These too, however, were higher than the nationwide rates. And a better poverty measure than the clunker the ACS uses would probably yield higher rates for seniors here in the District.

Non-Hispanic Whites v. Everybody Else

Race/ethnicity gaps in the District remain very wide. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was more than three and a half times greater than the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 28.7%, as compared to 7.7%.
  • For blacks, the deep poverty rate was 15.2%, while for non-Hispanic whites only 5.1%.
  • For Hispanics, the poverty rate was 12.6% and the deep poverty rate 5.6%. These are markedly lower than the 2012 rates, unlike the others here.
  • Rates for Asians were 18.7% and 13.2% respectively.

We see similar disparities in median household income, i.e., the midpoint between the highest and the lowest.

  • The median income for non-Hispanic white households was a very comfortable $118,402.
  • For black households, the median income was less than a third of that — $38,124.
  • Hispanic and Asian households fell in between, with a median incomes of $50,861 and $63,281 respectively.

The non-Hispanic white household median was a whole lot higher here than nationwide, by nearly $60,720.  The medians for black and Hispanic households were higher too, but the dollar differences were much smaller, especially the former. The median for Asian households was lower — a surprise, since it was considerably higher in 2012.

Work and Education

We’re told that work is the solution to poverty. The ACS figures support this, but only up to a point.

In 2013, 46.5% of poor residents between the ages of 16 and 64 didn’t work at all. An additional 25.7% worked less than full time or intermittently.

But that still leaves nearly 8,380 working-age residents who were employed full-time, year round and still not earning enough to lift themselves out of poverty — or at least, not them and dependent family members.

It’s a fair guess that these are mostly residents who don’t have the formal education credentials that living-wage jobs here, as elsewhere, increasingly demand. This is probably also the case for many of the part-time and some-time employed.

What we do know is that roughly 44.5% of residents 25-64 years old who had less than a high school education were employed during 2013 — and only 54.2% with no more than that.

Not surprisingly then, the poverty rate for those 25 years and older who had just a high school diploma or the equivalent was 27% last year — and for those with less, 39.3%. By contrast, the poverty rate for those with at least a four-year college degree was just 5.4%.

(Yes, I know these shifting age brackets are frustrating.)

Income Inequality

There’s obviously a lot of wealth in the District — and a lot of poverty. We see this in the figures I’ve cited, but also in the fact that the average household income — $102,822 — is so much greater than the median.

While 15.3% of households had incomes under $15,000, 12% had incomes of at least $200,000 — the highest bracket the Census Bureau reports.

There’s nothing new about this divide, except for the specific numbers. Nor is it unique to the District, though the disparity here seems unusually high. Nothing new about that either.

Most experts — and advocates as well — view the growing income inequality in this country as a bad thing in and of itself. They also see negatives specifically for people at the low end of the income scale. Many of the same arguments would apply to the District.

Nearly 10,860 families in the District had annual incomes, including cash benefits of less than $10,000 last year. Surely we can do better, though doing it won’t be simple.

* All the ACS tables include the margins of error, i.e., how much the raw numbers and percents could be too high or too low. In the interests of simplicity, I’m reporting both as given.

NOTE: I’ve revised several figures in this post because I’ve learned that I should use the ACS national figures for comparisons. I had originally used the Current Population Survey for these because that’s how I understood the Census Bureau advice.


Official U.S. Poverty Rate Finally Ticks Down

September 16, 2014

The Great Recession officially ended more than five years ago. Data from various sources indicate that the recovery has actually taken hold, even in the labor market. And now the official poverty rate does so too.

The Census Bureau just reported that the overall poverty rate for the U.S. population ticked down for the first time since 2006 — from 15% in both 2011 and 2012 to 14.5% last year.

But like the other indicators, the new rate shows we’ve still got a long way to go — and that such prosperity as the recovery has generated is far from equally shared.

The new poverty rate translates into 45.3 million people poor enough to fall below the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds. These are very low — an annual income of less than $18,770 for a single parent with two children, for example.

More than 19.8 million people — 6.3% — lived in what’s commonly referred to as deep (or extreme or severe) poverty, i.e., had incomes below half the threshold applicable to their family size and configuration.

As in the past, the child poverty rate was considerably higher than the overall rate — 19.9%, representing well over 14.6 million children or about one in three of all our country’s poor. And the senior poverty rate was considerably lower — 9.5%.

Approximately 6.5 million children — 8.8% lived in deep poverty. This was true for only 2.7% of seniors.

But we’ve reasons to expect that the Census Bureau’s report on its more complex Supplemental Poverty Measure will show markedly higher rates for seniors, as well as somewhat lower rates for children.

Other disparities generally mirror those we’ve seen before. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was nearly triple the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 27.2%, as compared to 9.6%.
  • The deep poverty rate for blacks was 12.2%, while only 4.3% of non-Hispanic whites were that poor.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics was 23.5% and their deep poverty rate 9.4%.
  • Rates for Asians were 10.5% and 5.2% respectively.

Disparities among family types also replicate a familiar patterns. The percent of married couples who were officially poor was 5.8%, while the percent for single-woman families was 30.6%. Families headed by a single man were again in between — 15.9%. And there were, as usual, far fewer of them.

Like the overall rate, most of these breakout rates were lower than in 2012. Not, however, the poverty rate for blacks or the ever-so-much-lower deep poverty rates for non-Hispanic whites and married couples.

None of the rates was as low as in 2007 — the last year before the Census survey reflected the recession. And those rates were nothing to cheer about.


Acute Affordable Housing Shortage for Lowest-Income Renters

September 11, 2014

A new and notable brief from the National Low Income Housing Coalition provides further evidence of the shortage of housing that low-income individuals and families can afford to rent.

As in the past, NLIHC flags the acute shortage of units that extremely low-income households could rent at an affordable rate, i.e., for no more than 30% of their income.

ELI households are the poorest category used for publicly-subsidized affordable housing — and the poorest analysts customarily use. They’re those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in.

The most notable thing about the NLIHC analysis is that it introduces a new poor category — deeply low-income households. Their incomes are, at most, 15% of the applicable AMI.

ELI and DLI Renters Nationwide

DLI households are part of the ELI category, but we can see how recent housing and income trends have disadvantaged them the most. For example, in 2012, the latest Census figures NLIHC had to work with:

  • There were 10.3 million ELI renter households nationwide, but only 3.2 million available units they could afford — in other words, 31 for every 100 households.
  • Of these households, 4 million were DLI.* The shortage for them was nearly as great as their number — 3.4 million units. This translates into 16 units for every 100 households.
  • All but 13% of ELI households paid more than they could afford for rent, plus basic utilities. And 75% of them paid more than half their income for these basic needs.
  • Housing burdens, as they’re called, were even worse for DLI households. Ninety percent paid more than they could afford and 95% more than half their income.

Drilling Down to DC

Another notable thing is that NLIHC includes (un)affordability figures for states and the District of Columbia and for major metropolitan areas, including the one used to set the AMI for the District. So we who have a particular interest in affordable housing for the District’s lowest-income residents have new grist for our mills.

Somewhat surprising, at least to me, is the fact that the crunch for them is apparently somewhat less severe than the nationwide crunch — at least, according to the NLIHC figures. We should take them with a grain of salt, however, because the AMI for the District is considerably higher than the District’s own median income.

That said, the local housing market is hardly friendly to the District’s lowest-income renters. And we’ve got a lot of them. NLIHC reports that:

  • There were 26,485 ELI households in 2012 and only 45 affordable, available rental units for every 100 of them.
  • Nearly 71% of them — 18,750 — were DLI households. For them, the affordable housing shortage was worse — 34 units for every 100 households.
  • All but 29% of the ELI households — and all but 23% of those in the DLI subgroup — paid more than half their income for rent.

So for large majorities of both, rental housing wasn’t just somewhat unaffordable, but so unaffordable as to represent a significant risk of homelessness — or if not that, then other hardships.

Trade-Offs Made to Pay for Unaffordable Housing

A recent survey for the MacArthur Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of childless adults — and 75% of parents — whose rents or mortgages were unaffordable had made at least one trade-off in order to cover their housing costs.

Trade-offs included cutting back on health care and/or “healthy food,” amassing credit card debt and giving up on saving for retirement.

Why ELI and DLI Renters Can’t Find Affordable Units

As NLIHC has explained before, part of the problem is that more higher-income households are choosing to rent. So the law of supply and demand has kicked in, driving up what landlords charge.

At the same time, developers have seen a money-making opportunity. Of the 2.5 million rental units added to local markets since 2009, fewer than half a million were affordable for households with incomes below 80% of the AMI, i.e., the highest of the low-income tiers.

It’s also the case, however, that higher-income renters are occupying units that ELI households could afford — about 45% of them nationwide. A recent in-depth study of the Washington metro area came up with virtually the same crowd-out figure.

So there’s a large unmet need for low-cost units. But, as NLIHC says, organizations that want to help meet it face significant challenges, e.g., insufficient subsidies for both developers and operators, who can’t otherwise cover their costs with the rents they’ll collect.

A clarion call for greater public investments in affordable housing programs, of course. And since we can’t look to Congress any time soon, state and local governments, including the District, will have to do more for their lowest-income residents.

Obvious, but I felt I had to say it.

* The American Community Survey, which NLIHC used for most of its analysis, reaches only people who are in some manner housed. So the affordable housing shortage for the very lowest-income individuals and families is even greater than reported, as the brief duly notes.


Hunger in America Widespread and Frequent, New Report Shows

September 8, 2014

About one in seven people in America — 46.5 million in all — depend, at least in part, on nonprofit feeding programs to stave off hunger. This is one of many, many things we can learn from Feeding America’s report on its latest survey of the agencies it helps supply and their clients.

These many, many things gel into different stories. I’ll focus on one of them here — the fact that in this very wealthy country of ours, a very large number of people can’t always afford to eat healthfully, SNAP (the food stamp program) notwithstanding.

But first a few words about the programs themselves. About two-thirds of the more than 58,000 programs that Feeding America helps supply through its food bank network provide groceries.

Most of the others provide foods already prepared. They include so-called soup kitchens, meals delivered to the homes of elderly and disabled people and food services for homeless shelters, other residential facilities, senior centers and daycare centers for children.

Some provide meals and/or snacks to kids who participate in after-school activities, either as their exclusive service or in addition to the aforementioned.

So the programs reach diverse people in diverse ways. Feeding America’s new report reflects responses from more than 60,000 of them.

Some Key Facts About Program Clients

In some respects, it’s hard to generalize about the beneficiaries of the feeding programs because, as I said, they’re a diverse group — and the report is chock-full of data points. For those of us who attend to the poverty dialogue, if we should call it that, a couple of things jump out.

More program clients are white than belong to any other race/ethnicity group — 43.4% of the total and nearly half of the prepared-meal recipients.

Among the adults, 72.5% have, at most, a high school diploma or the equivalent. But 20.5% have at least some college education — and 5.7% a four-year college degree or higher. Slightly over 10% were enrolled in school at the time the survey was conducted.

Nearly 54% of all clients lived in a household where someone was employed during the year. The percent is considerably higher — 70.6% — for households with children.

Yet unemployment and under-employment are clearly problems. Only 34.3% of households included any member who’d worked at least six months out of the last twelve. And only 43% included someone who’d worked at least 30 hours a week.

Both these percents are higher for households with children — 48.9% and 47% respectively. Yet obviously lack of paying work helps account for their food assistance needs.

Ongoing Financial Hardships

Several years ago, Feeding America reported that visits to food pantries had “become the new normal.” This is apparently still true. The number of times individuals and families received groceries and/or meals was well over eight times greater than the number served — 389.2 million over the course of a year.

What this tell us, of course, is that a great many weren’t coping with a one-time emergency. Both the employment figures and others indicate ongoing financial hardships.

About half of the households the grocery and meal programs served were officially poor, i.e. living below the federal poverty line. They include 11.7% who reported no income at all during the past twelve months.

An additional 33.2% had incomes between 101% and 185% of the FPL — the cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

The median annual income for all households served was $9,175 — less than a fifth of the median for all U.S. households. The median for those with children was somewhat higher — $11,721. But because these households are larger, 77% lived below the FPL.

All but 6.8% of client households lived in what the report characterizes as a “nontemporary housing arrangement,” e.g., an apartment, a house they owned, were paying for or sharing.

But that doesn’t mean they were all stably housed. Nearly 27% had lived in at least two places during the past year. Somewhat over 22% started doubling-up with family members or someone else. And 15.5% had been foreclosed on or evicted within the last five years.

What About Food Stamps?

Notwithstanding their need for food assistance, only 54.8% of client households received SNAP benefits. This seems a low participation rate. And the survey data don’t altogether explain it.

All we know for sure is that about 28% of the households had incomes above the standard eligibility cut-off. But most states and the District of Columbia have higher gross income cut-offs now.

The report suggests that some others might have had savings and/or other assets above the very low limit that some states still impose.

Some probably didn’t qualify because of their immigration status. Federal law bars not only undocumented immigrants, but most of those who’ve been in the country legally for less than five years.

It’s still the case that more households probably could have qualified for SNAP and for various reasons, chose not to apply. The benefits obviously wouldn’t have enabled all them to keep food on the table, however.

About 86% of the client households enrolled in SNAP reported that they use them up in three weeks or less. The same was true for 88.8% of the SNAP households with children.

Struggles, Even With the Feeding Programs

Large numbers of households had to make trade-offs between food and some other necessity — or perhaps multiple necessities.

For example, 57.1% reported having to choose between paying for food or for housing at least once during the prior year. Percents were considerably higher for other trade-offs — nearly 66% for medical care, 66.5% for transportation and 69.3% for utilities.

For many, these weren’t one-time hard choices. More than 30% reported making them every month, except for housing. And that percent wasn’t much lower.

These weren’t the only types of choices households made. Well over 78% — and 83.5% of those with children — reported buying “inexpensive, unhealthy food.” More than half reported knowingly eating food past its expiration date.

And 40% said they watered down food and/or drink. The percent is higher for households with children — 44.8%.

So there you have it — or rather, some select pieces of it. That we should have such hunger in America today is, to my mind, simply shameful — and a call to action on various fronts.


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