Let’s Recall Poverty Before the Safety Net

January 16, 2012

Huffington Post blogger Dan Morgan looks back nearly 50 years to tell us what poverty was like in his early reporting days.

This is an important, timely post because it reminds us of how poor people lived — and died — before the creation of today’s safety net.

Here in the District of Columbia, Morgan found “people living in basement apartments with dirt floors. Many were hungry, cold and short of coal for stoves. Some children were staying home because they had no shoes.”

Found a penniless woman with no coat to brave the cold weather for a trip to the social service agency. A blind man who made the trip, but was living with his nine children in an unheated place because the agency wouldn’t — or couldn’t — help him buy fuel.

In California, Morgan met a family that had lost three babies to dehydration while picking cotton there in 1936.

Still dreadful conditions 20 years later, he writes, when Michael Harrington chronicled farm worker poverty in that agriculture-rich state.

Morgan cites some evidence that safety net programs have lifted Americans out of poverty.

For example, the official poverty rate for seniors dropped from 28.5% in 1966 to 9% in 2010, at least partly because the federal government started indexing Social Security retirement benefits to cost-of-living increases.

Two other examples based on the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. You can see them in this nice infographic from the Half in Ten campaign.

But Morgan’s main point is that safety net programs have changed the quality of poverty.

In other words, poor people, by and large, don’t suffer the same acute, life-threatening deprivations as they did before we began building the network of programs that make up today’s safety net.

Morgan focuses on what may be our biggest success — federal nutrition assistance programs.

“Clinical malnutrition,” he writes, “has given way to what government and private agencies call ‘food insecurity.'”

“Poor nutrition, not malnutrition is the biggest problem” now, says anti-hunger expert and advocate Joel Berg.

And indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 figures, children in only 1% of American households sometimes didn’t get enough to eat because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them.

WIC alone, Berg estimates, has prevented 200,000 babies from dying at birth.

“Progressives,” Morgan concludes, “should not be timid about extolling this achievement. And conservatives, above all, should welcome it” because safety net programs “enable millions more people to participate in the great American market,” e.g., by using food stamps to buy groceries, vouchers to pay rent to private landlords.

Many conservatives do appreciate the safety net, Morgan says. But, even by his own showing, many don’t.

For example, he quotes Newt Gingrich, whose latest tome notes that the 2009 poverty rate was about the same as when the War on Poverty began. “What did we get in return?” Newt asks — a rhetorical question if ever there was one.

We hear the same thing from the Republican Study Committee, which counts a large majority of House Republicans as members.

“Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare,”* it says. “Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.”

This is the send-up for its broad-gauge attack on virtually the whole range of federal programs that constitute the safety net.

And RSC member Paul Ryan, who chairs the influential House Budget Committee, has personally championed radical safety net cuts.

As we head into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget season, both the administration and Congress will be looking for ways to reduce non-defense spending by $54.7 billion.

“The safety net will be a fat target,” Morgan warns.

Some major programs won’t get hit by the automatic cuts the failure of the Super Committee will trigger. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe, since Congress is perfectly free to change them — or the law that partly protects them.

Other programs are wide open, as the Congressional committees and subcommittees parcel out the mandated reductions.

We often focus on defects in the safety net — people who aren’t served, people who are but not sufficiently. This is still important.

But, taking a leaf out of Morgan’s book, I feel we urgently need to show how much good safety net programs do — and to revive the history of what poverty in America was like before them.

* This figure comes from the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation — a not always reliable source. The RSC is also indebted to the Foundation for its uniquely expansive definition of “welfare”.


Some Policy Lessons From USDA’s Food Security Report

September 21, 2011

No one, I suppose, needs to be reminded that public benefits programs are in the bull’s eye. Federal nutrition assistance programs are no exception

Funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) has been cut, and the House of Representatives has voted to trim it further. It’s approved cuts for other food assistance programs as well.

The House budget plan would also radically reduce funding for SNAP (the food stamp program) — this by converting it into a block grant.

And who knows what will happen when the Super Committee starts looking for budget savings to meet its $1.5 trillion target?

All these threats make the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest food security report especially timely.

Because the results tell us that the main federal nutrition assistance programs are working — not as well as they might, but well enough to keep hunger at bay in a very high percentage of low-income households.

In 2010, the percent of households that experienced food insecurity remained essentially flat — 14.5% as compared to 14.7% in 2009. The difference, USDA says, is not statistically significant.

What the rate means is that an estimated 85.5% of households had “enough food for an active, healthy life” for all members at all times during the year — virtually the same as in 2008, the first full year of our Great Recession.

This in itself is noteworthy.

More noteworthy is the fact that the percent of households experiencing very low food insecurity, i.e., those with such limited resources that some member(s) sometimes had to cut back on or altogether skip meals, dropped from 5.7% to 5.4%.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that the biggest declines were among households with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, i.e.,  households that could have been eligible for one or more of the main food assistance programs.

Those with children, for example, generally would have been eligible for WIC and/or free or reduced-price school meals. Their very low food security rate dropped from 2.9% to 2.1%.

This is hardly to say that all would be well if we could just protect the key nutrition assistance programs from the cost-cutting impulses of those in Congress who view federal “welfare” spending as a budget-busting failure.

Consider, for example, that food insecurity rates were less than half the 2010 rate for all three years before the recession set in. Or that barely more than half the households with incomes low enough to be eligible received food stamp benefits for any part of the year.

Of those that got them for the entire year, 49.3% still suffered from low or very low food security. So it seems reasonable to suppose that the benefits didn’t cover the costs of as much food as they needed.

And, indeed, we see that better-off households, i.e., those with incomes over 185% of the FPL, spent 30% more on food than the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket USDA uses to calculate food stamp benefits.

Households at the upper end of the eligibility range might have had resources to fill the gap. The poorer would probably have had to make do with less food than an “active, healthy life” requires.

Thus we see much higher food insecurity rates among populations with the highest poverty rates.

For example, the food insecurity rate for single mothers with children was 20.6% higher than the overall household rate. For black households, it was 10.6% higher and for Hispanic households, 11.7% higher.

Yet other data suggest that poverty alone may not account for disparities among food insecurity rates.

We see big differences among the three-year rates that USDA uses to compensate for relatively low state-level survey samples.

In 2008-10, the averages ranged from 19.4% in Mississippi and 18.8% in Texas (knew you’d want that one) to 7.1% in North Dakota. They don’t align neatly with differences in poverty rates.

The District of Columbia, for example, had higher poverty rates than the overall U.S. rates for the three-year period. Yet its average food insecurity rate was lower than the national average — 13% as compared to 14.6% nationwide. Its very low food security rate was also lower — 4.5% as compared to 5.6%.

The message here is that food security hinges in part on state and local policies. It’s hardly coincidental, I think, that USDA had to intervene in Texas because the government had made choices that created huge backlogs in food stamp applications.

The largest threats now, however, seem to be at the federal level. Spending cuts in nutrition programs will affect low-income people in every state. They’ll also further depress consumer demand — and thus cause more job losses.

Which will, of course, drive up the number of households that can’t afford to keep enough food on the table for a healthy life.


New Insights Into Food Insecurity In The U.S.

April 21, 2011

Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report takes studies of food insecurity to the next level. It’s a unique, multi-faceted presentation of the problem that points to changes needed in both poverty measurement and federal anti-hunger policy.

The gap in the title refers to the estimated number of additional meals that people who said they couldn’t always afford to eat would have if they did. The methodology used to calculate the gap is somewhat complicated. So I’ll just refer those interested to the executive summary.

The map is online and interactive, with different shades of green indicating different food insecurity rates in counties across the U.S.

Mouse over it and you get statewide food insecurity rates, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food security report for 2009.

But that’s only the beginning. You also get:

  • The number of food insecure people.
  • The percentages of food insecurity in three different income bands based on eligibility ceilings for food stamps and for some other federal nutrition assistance programs like WIC.
  • The additional funds that would have been needed to provide everyone with enough to eat in 2009.
  • The average cost of a meal, based on USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket used to determine food stamp benefits.

And you can get these data in print-out form for every county and food bank service area in the country. Coming soon, I understand, will be the same data for each Congressional district.

All this detail yields some important insights.

  • Food insecurity is everywhere — not just in the states or areas within states that we’re accustomed to thinking of as poor.
  • A large percentage of food insecure people aren’t eligible for federal nutrition assistance programs — a nationwide average of 29% in 2009.
  • People may be food insecure even with food stamps in part because the Thrifty Food Plan market basket costs considerably more in some places than the average nationwide.
  • For somewhere around $22 billion a year we could provide everyone in the country with enough to eat.

The state and county-level information should help policymakers target their efforts. Also advocates, the  network of food banks that Feeding America supplies and the pantries, dining rooms and other programs that get food from the banks.

There are also several lessons — most not new — for policymakers at the federal level.

First off, we urgently need a final, more realistic poverty measure. How can a family be well above the federal poverty line if they can’t afford enough to eat?

But the new poverty measure shouldn’t just be, as now envisioned, an alternative tool for analysis and program assessment. It should be used to define income eligibility criteria for public assistance like food stamps.

Yes, this would be politically dicey. But there’s something fundamentally wrong when more than 14.5 million food insecure people couldn’t qualify for federal food assistance because they were too far above the poverty line that will still be used as a cut-off when the new measure is published.

Yet even many people in the food stamp program now report food insecurity. The latest USDA figures are yet more evidence that the way food stamp benefits are calculated should be changed.

The Food Research and Action Center has recommended ditching the Thrifty Food Plan in favor of USDA’s lowest-cost food budget for normal use. Also cutting the time lag for the annual inflation adjustment so that benefits don’t reflect food prices from as much as 16 months earlier.

Even these relatively modest changes would entail some additional costs. But if the Feeding America meal-gap closing figure is anywhere in the ballpark, the funds needed would be a miniscule fraction of the total federal budget.

Most immediately, Congress should restore at least the $2.2 billion it took from the food stamp budget last December, as the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget for USDA proposes.

Recall that this would still leave the program shy the $11.9 billion that was cut to help pay for last summer’s whittled-down jobs bill.

Will Congress take this minimal step to keep more people from going hungry? Your guess is as good as mine.

But given the current spending cut battle on Capitol Hill, the prospects don’t look rosy.


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