DC To Get $1.5 Million More For Food Stamp Administration

February 24, 2010

Tucked away in the Fiscal Year 2010 appropriations for the Department of Defense are some other appropriations Congress wanted to fast-track. One provides a total of $400 million more to help states–and the District of Columbia–cope with increasing pressures on their food stamp programs.

The costs of food stamps themselves are covered by the federal government. But state and local agencies have to administer the program. The federal government ordinarily picks up about 50% of the administrative costs, leaving states responsible for the rest.

The supplement will increase the federal share, with the greatest amounts going to the states with the highest percentages of households in the food stamp program and the greatest recent increases in the number participating. The District will get nearly $1.5 million.

The recession has vastly increased applications, caseloads and, with them, needs to periodically re-verify eligibility. Backlogs have become a serious problem. In our own backyard, Maryland is under court order because of excessive processing delays. At least four other states have settled similar class action lawsuits. Texas has been told it may lose federal funds if it doesn’t speed up its system.

Last year, the District got a bonus performance award for the timeliness of its applications processing, along with an award for program access, i.e., the percentage of eligible residents enrolled in its program.

But applications processing doesn’t measure how long people have to wait to complete the intake process. We read of people waiting hours–even days–to get the required meeting with an Income Maintenance Administration staff member. No wonder, given the staff cutbacks and rising unemployment rate.

And bonus award notwithstanding, the participation rate here leaves room for improvement. This means that IMA should be investing resources in outreach to low-income people who don’t know they’re eligible or are deterred by barriers real and imagined. The hassle factor, including the costs of repeated trips to an IMA service center, are surely among the former.

Now IMA could have reduced its administrative burdens by swiftly implementing the Food Stamp Expansion Act because making more people categorically eligible would reduce needs to go through the complex process of calculating assets. It might have gotten a larger share of the supplement too.

We’re given to understand that it will complete implementation some time this spring. By then, it will also have its extra administrative funds. So we should see shorter waiting times in the service centers, quick turnarounds on applications and a higher participation rate.

This, of course, assumes that the Fenty administration uses the extra funds as Congress intended. Staff at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have warned that states could reduce their own funding for food administration and use the new federal funds instead.

But surely that won’t happen here. Will it?


New Hope For Narrowing the Justice Gap

February 4, 2010

As I wrote awhile ago, civil legal services for low-income people are hobbled by two major impediments–inadequate funding and restrictions on what local legal services providers can do if they receive funds from the Legal Services Corporation.

The Corporation’s funding, in real dollars, has been declining since 1980, when its appropriation was sufficient to provide a “minimum level of access” to legal aid, i.e., two lawyers for every 10,000 low-income people in every county.

It was clear from the get-go that the Fiscal Year 2010 budget process wouldn’t do much about the funding problem. President Obama’s budget proposed $435 million for LCS–$45 million more than the Fiscal Year 2009 appropriation, but about $50 million less than LCS had requested.

The House of Representatives approved $440 million and the Senate $400 million. The negotiators ultimately split the difference. So LCS will have $420 million for the current fiscal year–about $345 million less than the Center for American Progress Action Fund estimated would be needed to restore minimum access.

But it did seem for awhile that this year’s budget process might significantly modify the restrictions. The President’s proposed budget included amendments to the Corporation’s authorizing legislation that would have allowed LCS grantees to seek attorneys’ fees in cases where they prevailed and to use non-LCS funds for activities that had been banned.

The House adopted the attorneys’ fees recommendation but left the remaining restrictions in place. The Senate lifted most of the restrictions on uses on non-LCS funds. On this matter, the House prevailed in the negotiations that led to the final bill.

But all is not lost. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) have introduced identical bills–the Civil Access to Justice Act (H.R. 3764/S. 718)–that would eliminate all restrictions on uses of non-LCS funds, except (wouldn’t you know it) participation in litigation related to abortion.

Permissible uses of LCS funds would also be broadened to permit collection of attorneys’ fees and participation in class action suits “grounded in existing law.” The prohibition on representing prisoners would be modified to permit litigation on issues related to a prisoner’s “ability to reenter society successfully.” And some non-citizens now denied representation could be served.

H.R. 3764 and S. 718 are technically bills to reauthorize LCS–something that should have been done 30 years ago. In addition to addressing the restrictions, they would also raise the permissible ceiling on appropriations to $750 million. This, the sponsors say, would be the equivalent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to the last appropriation that met the minimum access standard.

Of course, authorizing this much doesn’t mean that LCS will get it. But the figure establishes a reasonable target and a benchmark for the next five years.

The bills aren’t perfect. But they would bring civil legal services for low-income people into much closer alignment to what other Americans can receive. And they would enable LCS-funded nonprofits to engage in actions that would effectively and efficiently address the needs of large groups of clients.

So I think they deserve our support. And they’re going to need it because it’s obvious that our elected leaders can’t deal with more than a couple of controversial issues at a time. And if past is prologue, “equal access to the system of justice in our Nation” won’t be one of them.


Lawyers For Low-Income People In Short Supply

November 28, 2009

Anyone who hasn’t led a charmed life knows how important it can be to have an attorney. They also know that private legal help doesn’t come cheap.

In 1974, Congress established the Legal Services Corporation to help provide free legal assistance in civil matters to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. The Corporation receives federal funds through annual appropriations.

Most of these funds go to nonprofit local legal aid programs. Many of these programs also receive funds from state and local governments, private donors and/or their state’s Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts program. This program gives them the interest on clients’ funds deposited in a separate account when the costs of investing them otherwise would exceed the return.

But there’s a large and growing gap between low-income people’s needs for legal services and the capacity of the programs to provide them. According to a recent LCS report:

  • For every client served by an LCS-funded program, another is turned away because of insufficient resources.
  • Fewer than one in five legal problems low-income people experience is addressed with help from an attorney.
  • There’s only one legal aid attorney for every 6,415 people below 125% of the federal poverty line, as compared to one attorney for every 469 people above it.
  • State courts, especially those that deal with issues affecting low-income people, are handling more cases involving a litigant without an attorney. A high percentage of these litigants qualify for legal aid.

The problem here begins with the federal budget. Like many well-intentioned programs, LCS has never been adequately funded. But up until 1981, it received enough to meet a minimum access standard, i.e., two lawyers for every 10,000 low-income people, in every county in the U.S.

Then came deep cuts, prompted by the Reagan administration’s hostility to the program. Though the budget has since been increased, it’s never recovered to minimum access level. According to a Center for American Progress brief, it would need about $765 million to do so–about double the current appropriation.

A second budget-related blow came when the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994. Programs receiving LCS funds were prohibited from engaging in class actions or advocating for legal reforms, even with funds from other sources. This left them no choice but to litigate similar cases one at a time, rather than seek systemic remedies. They were also prohibited from seeking attorneys’ fees that could otherwise be claimed.

The recession has exacerbated the funding problem in various ways.

  • IOLTA revenues have plummeted because the Federal Reserve Board has slashed interest rates to unfreeze credit markets and stimulate spending.
  • Some state and local governments have cut their support for legal aid programs to help close their budget gaps.
  • Rising unemployment and cutbacks in hours have made more people eligible for free legal services.
  • More eligible people need help with problems like foreclosures, debt, access to public benefits, domestic violence and child support.

For Fiscal Year 2010, LCS requested $485.1 million–about $295 million less than would be needed to serve all those currently seeking help from the local programs it supports.

The House appropriations bill would provide $440 million. It would lift the restriction on attorneys’ fees, but leave the rest of the restrictions intact.

The Senate version would provide $400 million–just $10 million more than in Fiscal Year 2009. But it would lift most restrictions on grantees’ uses of non-LCS funds. Prisoners and (surprise!) women needing help with abortion issues would still be out of luck.

The Washington Post recommends that House-Senate negotiators adopt the best of both–the House funding figure and the flexibility afforded by the Senate. This won’t close the justice gap. But it’s probably the best we can hope for until the vital, unmet legal needs of poor people become a higher priority.


Federal Funding For DC Homeless Housing Program At Risk

November 4, 2009

President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget included $19.2 million for the District of Columbia’s permanent supportive housing program. Whether the District actually gets this funding hinges on what happens in the Senate.

The House of Representatives adopted the President’s recommendation in its version of the Financial Services and General Administration Appropriations Act–the bill that includes federal funding for the District. The Senate Appropriation’s Committee didn’t.

I’ve been told that the appropriations bill will be folded into a more comprehensive bill comprising all the appropriations that the Congress hasn’t already sent to the President. So the hope now is that leaders of the House subcommittee for the District’s appropriation insist on the provision and their Senate counterparts agree.

SOME (So Others Might Eat) has posted a letter we can e-mail to urge these leaders to agree to the $19.2 million. It’s a quick, easy way to join our voices to those of PSH providers, their clients, advocacy organizations and other concerned citizens.

The funding would enable the District to move forward with its efforts to transition from an emergency shelter-based system to a system that provides long-term affordable housing and an array of services to those in greatest need–individuals and families who’ve been homeless for a long time or repeatedly over the years. Without the funding, the program will stall because its local funding was cut to help balance the D.C. budget.

The permanent supportive housing model is widely viewed as a cost-effective approach to helping homeless people who face complex challenges, e.g., very low (or no) income, mental illness, substance abuse, etc. The theory is that once they’re in a safe, stable environment, they’re more receptive to services that help them regain control over their lives and greater self-sufficiency. And, of course, it’s easier to coordinate these services and deliver them for however long needed.

The District has already moved more than 500 individuals and 70 families off the streets and out of emergency shelters into permanent supportive housing. The Department of Human Services says that the $19.2 million would allow it to extend the program to 400 more individuals and 150 more families. As in other communities, the investment should pay off in reduced shelter, medical care and other safety net costs.

It’s no substitute for urgently-needed funding for other homeless services. But it would reduce pressure on these services and offer chronically homeless people a better chance for a better life.


Congress Approves Free Suppers For Poor DC Children

October 9, 2009

A piece of good news in the midst of so much doom and gloom. The just-passed final version of the Fiscal Year 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill makes the District of Columbia eligible for federally-subsidized suppers for low-income children in after-school programs.

As I wrote awhile ago, D.C. was added to the eligibility list in the bill the House of Representatives passed. But it was dropped in favor of Wisconsin in the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee–maybe, just maybe because the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Committee represents Wisconsin.

The version the House and Senate agreed to includes both D.C. and Wisconsin, plus Nevada and Connecticut, which was also in the House bill and is, not coincidentally the home state of the chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

In view of the politics here, a lot of credit goes to our non-voting representative in the House and to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which worked hard behind the scenes to get the District’s need for free suppers on the radar screen.

What the Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions says is true not only for D.C. families, but for families nationwide. Parents who are working extra-long or non-traditional hours or struggling to get into (or back into) the workforce need extended after-school care for their children. These children need more than a snack, even if their parents have the time and resources to serve a nutritious evening meal at home. And many don’t.

So, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I hope Congress will go on to consider the unmet needs of poor children in the 37 states that still aren’t eligible for the subsidized supper program.

That’s only part of the unfinished agenda. Congress needs to change the program eligibility requirements because poor children can’t get even a subsidized snack, let alone supper, in an after-school program, except one operated by a school, unless they happen to live in an area where at least 50% of school-age children are poor. That may not be much of a problem in D.C., but it certainly is elsewhere.

And surely Congress should do something about the reimbursement rates too. Hard to see how an after-school program can serve tasty, nutritious suppers when the maximum reimbursement rate is, as for lunches, just $2.85 per meal.


Food Stamp Benefits Fall Short of Costs

August 29, 2009

What with the high unemployment rate, it’s no surprise that a record number of people now depend on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. Enrollment in the program jumped to 34.4 million in May–up by 2.2 million since January. There’s every reason to believe the number will go higher.

So it’s more important than ever for Congress to revisit food stamp benefit levels. In 2008, it made some changes in SNAP (the food stamp program) that modestly boosted benefits for most recipients and gave a somewhat greater boost for working families with high child care costs.

The economic stimulus package included a further temporary 13.6% increase in benefits. This gives a family of four a maximum of $668 per month–or about $1.85 per person per meal.

I can’t imagine eating healthfully on that amount. My husband and I spend more than what our total monthly benefit would be just on fruits and vegetables. And we (mostly) steer clear of the pricier choices.

The heart of the problem is that benefits are calculated on the basis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan. The TFP is basically a market basket of foods that, if prepared at home, would provide a nutritious diet at minimal cost. Or at least that’s what it’s supposed to be.

A family is expected to spend 30% of its net income on food. Food stamps are supposed to make up the difference between this and the cost of the TFP. But they don’t. According to a recent USDA study, the way that benefits are annually adjusted has resulted in consistent shortfalls–an average of $22 per month in 2008.

And this is only an average. In 2007, a research team developed an actual shopping list for a family of four based on the TFP and then collected prices on the items at 16 stores in low-income neighborhoods in Boston and Philadelphia.

They found that the average cost of the TFP in Boston was 39% higher than the family’s maximum food stamp benefit and 49% higher in Philadelphia. This, of course, is in part because, like the official poverty threshold, food stamp benefits take no account of geographic differences.

USDA has three other food plans–low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal. According to the Food Action and Research Center, the low-cost plan is generally in line with what low and moderate-income families report they need to spend on food. Its estimated cost is currently more than 20% higher than the TFP.

As part of its strategy for ending child hunger, FRAC recommends that food stamp benefits be based on the low-cost plan and that benefits be adjusted more quickly so that they reflect current prices, rather than prices calculated up to 16 months earlier.

The House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2010 provide a hefty increase for SNAP. This is intended to accommodate the costs of rising participation, plus an extension of the temporary increase.

But, so far as I can see, real reform isn’t on the horizon.


Congress Moves To Improve Nutrition for Poor Women and Children

August 19, 2009

WIC (formally, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) is one of our best public investments in the health, growth and development of the next generation.

For more than 34 years, it’s helped eligible pregnant women and parents with young children purchase foods and beverages needed for a healthful diet. It also provides breastfeeding counseling, other nutrition education and links to local health care services.

Like other child nutrition programs, WIC depends on annual appropriations. They’ve never been large enough to serve everyone who’s eligible. But WIC still has far more participants now than in pre-recession days.

In 2007, participation averaged somewhat under 8.3 million women and children. In May of this year, it was up to more than 9 million. The Obama administration projects Fiscal Year 2010 participation at a monthly average of 9.8 million.

Just before the Senate recessed, it passed its version of the Fiscal Year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill (S. 1406). This is the bill that provides funding for WIC, as well as food stamps and the other child nutrition programs.

The WIC part of the bill is similar, though not identical, to the provisions in the agriculture appropriations bill the House passed in July (H.R. 2997). They’re both good news.

First off, both bills will increase funding for WIC. The Senate version would provide $192 million more in new funds than the appropriations for this fiscal year, including the increase that was part of the economic recovery package. With the estimated balance in contingency funds, the total available for WIC would be somewhat more than $8 million–nearly 15% more than the original Fiscal Year 2009 appropriation.

The House bill would provide $10 million less than the Senate bill. However, the House Appropriations Committee states in its report that it will monitor food costs, participation and available funds and “take additional action, as necessary” to ensure that there’s enough funding for all eligible applicants.

The funding increase is just part of the good news. Both the House and Senate committee reports specifically state that some portion of the appropriations are to be used to increase fruit and vegetable vouchers up to the amounts recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

The bills thus override a decision the Bush administration made to limit program costs by covering considerably smaller allotments of fruits and vegetables than what IOM had determined was necessary for a healthy diet. So we should expect further improvements in the recently-expanded WIC food packages.

Of course, WIC is a small part of the agriculture appropriations bills. There are many differences between them that have to be resolved before the Department of Agriculture has a final Fiscal Year 2010 budget. The new fiscal year begins October 1, so we may see a final version some time in September.


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