Nearly One In Five Americans Still Struggle With Hunger

March 27, 2011

The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center is one more indication that the recession is by no means over for a vast number of Americans.

In 2010, the nationwide food hardship rate was barely lower than in 2009 — 18%, as compared to 18.3%. In the other words, nearly one out of five people in this country sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

Things were worse at the end of 2008. But, for reasons as yet unexplained, the food hardship rate for the last quarter of 2010 was the highest since Congress passed the temporary increase in food stamp benefits in the first quarter of 2009.

As I’ve said before, “food hardship” is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture terms “food insecurity”.

A family is counted as having experienced food hardship if the member surveyed answers in the affirmative when asked, “Have there been times during the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy the food that you and your family needed?”

The new FRAC report is considerably more expansive than the update issued in January. It’s the organization’s second full analysis of data Gallup collects to use for a broader well-being index.

Unlike the survey the Census Bureau conducts for USDA, the Gallup sample is large enough to allow reasonably reliable breakouts by small geographic areas and also year-over-year comparisons at the state level.

This makes the report uniquely valuable in two ways.

First, it’s a fine advocacy tool because it provides food hardship rates for every Congressional district in the country. Want to tell your Representative to support the President’s proposed fix for the recent cutback in the food stamp boost? Cite the food hardship rate in your district.

Second, it lets us drill down below the nationwide figure in a variety of ways. We get figures not only for Congressional districts, but for each major region, each state and the District of Columbia and each of the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas, i.e., city-centered geographic areas defined for use by the Census Bureau and other federal statistical agencies.

So we learn, for example, that:

  • Food hardship rates are highest in the Southeast and Southwest. Indeed, 12 of the 20 states with the highest 2010 rates are in these regions.
  • Rates are at least 20% in 21 states, with Mississippi topping them all at nearly 29%.
  • Rates are 15% or higher in all but five states.
  • In no state is the rate below 10%.
  • Here in our nation’s capital, the rate is 18.9%, putting the District again in the middle of the state ranking.

In short, as the FRAC report says, “food hardship is a problem in every corner of America, and should be of concern to every member of Congress.”

Ah yes, but is it?

FRAC attributes the persistently high food hardship rates to the ongoing jobs crisis. As it notes, the 2010 U-6 rates — the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment — were generally comparable to those in 2009 and rose a bit toward the end of the year.

And even the U-6 measure understates the total number of jobless people who’d like to — and need to — work because it doesn’t include people who gave up looking more than a year ago.

But both the White House and Congress seem to have put the jobs crisis behind them. The hot debate is how much and where to cut spending. And, Republican assertions notwithstanding, spending cuts mean job losses.

The current spending-cut focus spells trouble for people who urgently need food assistance in other, more direct ways.

The continuing resolution the House passed in late February would cut funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) by about 10%. It would also cut funding for several other programs that help feed low-income people.

These cuts would theoretically be only temporary, since a new federal budget year begins on October 1. But they suggest that President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 proposals to address hunger and poor nutrition could face the chopping block.

Let’s hope all those members of Congress with high food hardship rates decide that three squares a day for the nearly 48 million poor people in this country are a better investment than, say, those still-unready, way-over-budget F-25 fighter planes.

UPDATE: Hope may spring eternal, but the Welfare Reform Act recently introduced by some House Republicans would, among other things, eliminate what remains of the funding to keep food stamp benefits at the higher level they’ve been since 2009, when the economic recovery act was passed.

Since this posting was first published, I’ve written another explaining why the bill threatens all safety net programs.


House Spending Cuts Would Mean Massive Job Losses

March 2, 2011

I suppose this is self-evident, but I think it’s worth saying. Spending cuts as deep and wide as the House Republicans want would throw many thousands of people out of work.

Based on the total non-security cuts that went to the House floor, the Economic Policy Institute estimated somewhat over 800,000. Mark Zandi, Chief Economist at Moody’s Analytics, projects job losses at 700,000 by the end of 2012 — this apparently based on the bill the House passed.

Add to the jobless an uncounted number of workers who would be subject to reduced work hours or furloughs.

In the latter camp would be employees in the Social Security Administration. So much for getting timely action on benefits claims — let alone hearings on the large percentage of disability claims the agency initially rejects.

But it’s not only federal employees that would be affected. Think of all the state and local public service workers who’d find themselves on the unemployment rolls — Head Start and K-12 teachers, staff in one-stop centers for job seekers, etc.

A fact sheet from the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center says that the Head Start and Title I (Education for the Disadvantaged) cuts alone could cause an estimated 65,000 layoffs. Not a disinterested source, but not necessarily out of the ballpark either.

And then there are all the private-sector workers indirectly paid by federal grants to the states, e.g., the professionals and other staff in the community health centers that would close or shrink. The centers’ national association estimates job losses totaling 7,434.

Add to these the jobs that would be lost in the maternal and child health centers the Republicans would totally defund. And the 80,000 public service jobs funded by AmeriCorps — also targeted for extinction.

And what about the construction workers who won’t be rehabbing public housing or building new affordable housing because of cuts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget?

And the workers that we devoutly hope will be maintaining the Washington metro area’s rapid transit system, but probably won’t be if the proposed $150 million WMATA cut is approved?

I could go on generating examples, but I think you’ve got the picture.

Confronted with the loss the federal jobs, House Majority Leader John Boehner replied, “So be it. We’re broke.” Which is stuff and nonsense. But then so is the notion that the proposed spending cuts will reduce the deficit that’s got our policymakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — so agitated.

When people don’t work, they don’t owe as much — or anything — in income taxes. They also don’t buy as much. Business profits go down and, with them, corporate tax payments.

So federal revenues decline, as they did when the recession set in. Meanwhile, mandatory safety net spending, e.g., for food stamps and Medicaid goes up, because more jobless people means more people poor enough to qualify.

So how is the deficit shrinking?

I think just about everyone agrees that federal spending is on an unsustainable upward curve. But the programs the House Republicans would slash have virtually nothing to do with that. The pie chart and analysis on Dustin’s Our Dime blog show why.

Maybe the House Republican leadership has put itself in a box. It pledged to immediately cut at least $1 billion in federal spending while holding the military and programs for veterans and seniors harmless.

This helped get a bunch of Tea Partiers elected. And now they’re insisting that the House make good on the pledge, though the very conservative chairmen of the Budget and Appropriations Committees apparently didn’t want to go there — at least not during the shrinking remainder of this fiscal year.

Whatever the case, I think EPI is right when it warns that the House proposal would magnify the ongoing labor market crisis.

Also right when it says the proposal “suggests that Americans take on unnecessary pain with no long-term gain.” I’d just add that some Americans are going to have lots more pain foisted off on them than others.


What Would DC Lose Under The House Budget Bill?

February 26, 2011

I’ve been trying to get my mind around what the spending cuts passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would mean for the District of Columbia.

Still working on it. There are, after all, a great many cuts and many different formulas for distributing such funds as remain.

Fortunately, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has come to the rescue with big parts of the answer — a state-by-state breakout of the major cuts in five broad categories.

It’s an heroic effort, but not exhaustive. Missing, for example, are breakouts of the $747.2 million cut to WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children)* and cuts to several other health-related programs.

One of these would totally wipe out long-standing federal funding for family planning and related preventive health care. Another would cut funding for community health centers by $1 billion — about a third of their total federal funding, says Joan McCarter, Senior Policy Editor at Daily Kos.

The CBPP figures reflect the continuing resolution as it was introduced. The version of House passed included numerous amendments. But so far as I know, only one of them affected the cuts CBPP calculated. I’ll post an update if I learn I’m wrong about this.

So, with caveats, here are some of the top-line figures for programs that are especially important to low-income District residents.

Education

The District would lose a total of $8.6 million in grants for K-12 education programs. (I’m assuming here that the funds the House restored for special education would be offset by the larger funding cut approved for school improvements.)

About 44,000 local college students would see their Pell grants reduced or altogether eliminated. The maximum grant they could receive would be $845 less than it is now. Because all grants are based on the maximum, the cut would affect all recipients.

Vocational and adult education programs would be cut by a total of $190,000.

Workforce Development

The job training and related services funded under the Workforce Investment Act would take a much bigger hit than the vocational and adult ed. programs — bigger even than CBPP originally reported.

WIA programs operate on a fiscal year that begins on July 1 — three months before new federal appropriations become effective. So they customarily get advance funding to carry them through. The continuing resolution doesn’t provide any.

So according to CBPP’s recalculation, the District would stand to lose $8.2 million for its WIA Fiscal Year 2011 program year. An estimated 20,900 adults now eligible would lose opportunities for skills assessments, training, job search help and the like, as would about 450 youth.

Affordable Housing

The District’s capital fund grant for public housing would be cut by $9.2 million. This is the grant that helps cover the costs of upgrading and repairing public housing units.

An additional $900,000 would be lost for affordable housing development and rental assistance funded under the HOME Investment Partnerships program.

Community Development

The District would also lose $12.4 million of the funds it receives from the Community Development Block Grant. That’s about 63% of what it received in Fiscal Year 2010.

The block grant can be used for a broad range of activities, including affordable housing development, neighborhood revitalization, improvements to public facilities like neighborhood centers and assistance to businesses for economic development activities that will benefit principally low and moderate-income people.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Two other block grants provide the District with funding for mental health services and for substance abuse prevention and treatment. Both would be cut, leaving the District with $471,000 less.

And, once again, the District would be banned from using its own funds for needle exchanges to help control the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Funding Exclusively for the District

CBPP understandably doesn’t cover the impending cut to funding the District receives because it’s the nation’s capital — and a unique state-city hybrid created and still controlled by Congress.

Under the continuing resolution, federal payments to the District would reportedly be cut by more than $80 million. Our Metro system would lose an additional $150 million.

“Another serious blow to the District’s precarious financial situation,” says Mayor Vincent Gray. He warns that the cuts “will probably result in the elimination of key services for residents of the District.”

Unquestionably, especially if he’s talking about the total prospective losses.

On the brighter side, the District almost certainly won’t lose all the funds the pending continuing resolution would take away. The Senate won’t pass the bill as written. President Obama has all but said he’d veto it if the Senate did.

However, the House Republican leadership has made clear that it won’t agree to even a short-term bill to avert a government shutdown unless it includes some cuts in current spending levels.

As so often in these cases, low-income people are likely to get thrown under the bus.

* This is the figure in a just-released budget report by the Coalition on Human Needs. CBPP’s overview for the state-by-state tables and my own calculations put the figure at a rounded-down $752 million.

UPDATE 1: After posting this, I found a state-by-state breakout for the cut to community health centers. According to the national association that represents them, the District would lose $865,826, and 3,755 patients would lose access to care.

UPDATE 2: I originally reported that K-12 education would be cut by $5.4 million. This was an error on my part. The correct figure is in the text above.


How Much Does Single-Mother Poverty Cost Our Nation?

February 24, 2011

My posting on the plight of single-mother families prompted commenter Glenda to ask a really good question: “Do you have any data … on our total public costs to continue to support single mothers living in poverty rather than investing in helping them to get educated and become self-sufficient?”

I replied as best I could at the time. But I’ve decided the issue is worth a deeper dive, especially because the whole matter of government spending on programs for low-income people has become a major focus in many states — and, of course, on Capitol Hill as well.

The short answer to the question is that I don’t know of any study that has compared the relative costs of the benefits that, to a limited extent, sustain poor single mothers with the costs that would be involved in enabling them to fully support themselves and their children.

There are, however, some studies that can help us look at one side of the cost question.

For example, we have some data on what the federal government spends to help support single-mother families. Two sociology professors report that, in 2006, federal expenditures due to “father absence” totaled $98.9 billion. A quick look at the expenditures shows that “father absence” is another way of characterizing single-mother families.

As the authors note, the estimate is actually a fraction of total costs. It doesn’t include costs borne by state and local governments, e.g., what states spend on federal-state “partnership” programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid and subsidized child care.

Nor do the estimates include the long-term indirect costs due to the negative effects of growing up fatherless. Many, though probably not all of these are the same as the long-term costs of child poverty.

A team of economists produced a report on these in 2008. Basically, they reviewed the research on the relationships between child poverty and three major cost areas — earnings, propensity to crime and quality of health in adulthood. They put these together with estimated costs of the latter two and projected all the figures out over the total number of poor children in the U.S.

Bottom line was an estimated $500 billion per year cost — nearly 4% of what was then our entire gross domestic product, i.e., the total value of all the goods and services produced in the U.S. This too was explicitly a conservative estimate.

Though the team didn’t assess the cost-effectiveness of specific anti-poverty policies, they did conclude that “investing significant resources in poverty reduction might be more cost-effective over time than [they] previously thought.”

Note the use of the term “investing” here. The same word Glenda used. The thought behind the word seems to me clear and appropriate. Pay some money now because you expect it will yield returns beyond what you spent.

In this case, you put funds into programs that will lift as many children as possible out of poverty — thus, in the long run, increase productivity and reduce public costs.

I flag the word because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) preemptively trashed on the President’s use of it in his recent State of the Union address. “With all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it investment,” he told the anchor on Sunday Fox News.

Seems to me that it’s possible to distinguish smart investments from spending that won’t be offset by benefits to our economy and the well-being of the American people. I should think that policymakers of all stripes would concur on some of the basics.

A review of the spending cuts proposed by the Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee suggests otherwise. One seems especially relevant here — the large cut in funding for state and local employment training programs. This, along with the other major cuts, passed in the House last Saturday.

Under the just-passed bill, total funding for these programs would be just 53% of what Congress approved for Fiscal Year 2010 — and again as part of the current continuing resolution. It would be just 49% of the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011 because he requested an increase.

So we would “save” about $1.4 billion or $1.6 billion, depending on which measure you want to use. (The former is more accurate, though Republicans understandably prefer the latter.)

The National Skills Coalition says we should factor in appropriations customarily made in advance of the new fiscal year. These would bring the total cut to somewhat over $2.97 billion. Some smaller, more narrowly-targeted workforce development programs would be totally defunded — or nearly so.

Consider what McConnell favors instead of these investments — a permanent extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts. This, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, would cost an estimated $3,402 billion for the first 10 years.

The permanent extension bill just proposed by self-proclaimed deficit hawks Mike Pence (R-IN) and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) would presumably cost even more because it would wholly eliminate the estate tax.

You can pay for a lot of job training and education for all those billions — and have plenty left over for other endangered programs that would also help single moms become fully self-sufficient.


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