What We Know (And Don’t) About Family Food Hardship In DC

October 6, 2011

Here’s the issue that’s been perplexing me ever since I read the Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship analysis.

As I earlier wrote, it tells us that an extraordinarily high percentage of District of Columbia households with children — 37.4% in fact — suffered from food hardship in 2009-10. In other words, the adult(s) sometimes didn’t have the resources to buy enough food for everyone in the family.

It would be easy to say, well, that’s because the District has an unusually high family poverty rate. Easy, but too simple. Because the federal government subsidizes a number of nutrition assistance programs.

The best known is the food stamp program — now officially SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the District bonuses for achieving top participation rates in both 2009 and 2010. So it seems unlikely that the family food hardship rate can be explained mainly by lack of food stamp benefits.

However, we’ve got good reasons to believe that food stamp benefits are too low to cover the full costs of food for a poor District family.

This still may not fully explain the family food hardship rate because other programs should have supplemented these benefits — at least, for households with children young enough for school attendance to be compulsory.

Are these programs not reaching the families that suffer from food hardship? Or do the families still run short, even though eligible members participate?

This is the question I said I couldn’t find the answer to. Here’s what I have found.

FRAC reports that the District’s summer meal program serves a very high percentage of low-income children — much higher than all those states with lower family food hardship rates. The base for this percentage is children who got free or reduced-price lunches during the school year — 80.2% last July.

FRAC also tracks school breakfast participation — again using school lunch participation as a benchmark. For the 2009-10 school year, it reports that somewhat over 48% of children who got free or reduced-price lunches also got F/RP breakfasts.*

This puts the District somewhat above the middle of both the state ranking and the large city school district ranking.

But how is the District doing with its school lunch program?

FRAC’s reports indicate growing participation by low-income children. In 2009-10, the total reached 37,306 — mostly children receiving free lunches, i.e., living in households at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

What we need to know is how many eligible children missed out. For that, it seems, we’d need to have access to unpublished data — or, for all I know, data that aren’t even collected.

The same is true for WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

FRAC’s nifty data tool tells us that, in 2009, the average monthly participation in the District totaled 17,463 — 6.5% more than 10 years ago. But we’ve got no benchmark to tell us what percentage of eligible mothers and young children the program served.

Ditto for Head Start, pre-K and daycare programs funded under the federal Child Care Development Block Grant — all of which generally provide kids with something to eat.

The Children’s Defense Fund reports District-level participant numbers for each. Total for 2010 was 5,806. But no percentages to tell us how many eligible children didn’t participate. And no way of knowing whether all who did got meals — or, if so, how many per day.

FRAC’s data tool provides average daily participant numbers for children in D.C. childcare programs, including Head Start, that serve meals or snacks subsidized by the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program.

In 2009, average daily participant numbers for them all totaled 5,948 — about 230 fewer than in 2007. But we’ve no way of knowing whether some low-income children got fed in programs that didn’t participate in CACFP.

And no way of knowing how many low-income children got no federally-subsidized meals or snacks at all. These would surely be children in the households most likely to suffer food hardship.

I’m not saying we need all these data to alleviate food hardship in the District — or for that matter, nationwide. But I do think we need to know more than we do to craft solutions that will give us the biggest bang for the buck.

More bucks too.

* As indicated below, FRAC has issued two school breakfast reports for the 2009-10 school year. The participation rate for the District is 48.4% in one and 48.2% in the other.


DC Tops All States For Family Food Hardship Rate

September 13, 2011

Perhaps you’ve read by now that more than one in three D.C. households with children — 37.4% in fact — suffered from food hardship during the past two years. In other words, the adults in these households couldn’t always afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families.

This is one of many figures in the Food Research and Action Center’s followup analysis of survey data Gallup collected during 2009-10.

Like the analysis I wrote about back in January, it breaks out food hardship by state, Congressional district and metropolitan statistical area, i.e., each of the urban-centered geographical areas the federal government uses for statistical purposes.

The difference is that the new analysis also includes break-outs for households with children and households without. This makes a big difference for the District, as it does nationwide.

Looking at household food hardship rates overall puts the District midway between states with the highest and the lowest. Ranking is nearly the same for households without children. But for households with children, the District’s food hardship rate is higher than any state’s.

One might say this is an apples and oranges comparison because the District is only a city — different, in relevant respects, from even small states. More sensible perhaps to focus on how the District stacks up among Congressional districts.

Not much better. Food hardship rates for households with children were higher in only nine Congressional districts and at least a full percent higher in only five.

How, I wonder, can we account for this?

It’s certainly the case that the District has an unusually high family poverty rate — 25.6% for households with children under 18, as compared to 16.6% nationwide.

But virtually all families below the poverty threshold are eligible for food stamps. And the District has achieved recognition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its success in getting its residents into the food stamp program.

Could it be that food stamp benefits aren’t high enough to pay for a full month’s worth of food for any entire family? I’ve thought so for some time. FRAC as well.

We’ve got some District-specific evidence now in Feeding America’s recent Map the Meal Gap report, which shows that the actual cost of the meal plan USDA uses as the basis for food stamps is considerably higher here than in the nation as a whole.

But now we’re looking only at households with children. Many of them poor enough to be at risk of food hardship don’t have to rely solely on food stamps to feed themselves as their children.

Mothers with young children may get coupons for certain additional food purchases from WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

Some of those younger children may also get free meals and/or snacks in programs like Head Start and child care centers.

School-age children can get free or reduced-price school meals and possibly also after-school snacks or suppers. During summers, meals for all children are free.

Needless to say, the more meals children get in these programs, the fewer the family food budget has to cover.

The issue seems to boil down to this: Are the programs not reaching enough low-income families or are they just not enough to offset food shortages in the home?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time prowling around the Web and can’t find an answer. May provide some answers in a followup posting.

Question marks notwithstanding, we’ve got ample evidence that far too many District residents have sometimes gone hungry. Probably still do.

We’ve got a strong network of nonprofits that serve meals to poor people or give them foods they can prepare at home. We’ve got organizations like DC Hunger Solutions and its partners that strive to increase participation in federally-funded free and reduced-price meals programs.

We’ve got a local government that’s concerned about hunger and nutrition, though follow-through sometimes falls short.

But hunger is not a problem the District can solve on its own. We need more federal funding for nutrition assistance programs — and for other anti-poverty programs as well.

With Congress riveted on deeper spending cuts, the best hope is that we don’t get less.


Big Myths Used To Sell Food Stamp Block Grant

May 12, 2011

I might feel better about the House Republicans’ food stamp block grant if Congressman Paul Ryan, who wrote it, were up front about the motive. Not more supportive, mind you, but less concerned — and angry.

It’s clear that the food stamp block grant, like the Medicaid block grant, aims to slash federal safety net spending. Savings on food stamp benefits, plus state administrative support would total nearly 20% over the first 10 years.

The objective here is to pare back what we’ve come to view as our government’s mission — and to offset the revenues that will be lost by the proposed tax cut extensions and expansions.

But the budget plan doesn’t justify the food stamp program that way. It relies instead of three big myths.

The first is that the safety net is likely to become — if it hasn’t already — a “comfortable hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency.”

Complacency? Ryan and his colleagues obviously haven’t taken a food stamp challenge recently — or tried to support themselves and their families on an income well below the federal poverty line.

The second myth is that participation in the food stamp program is increasing at a “relentless and unsustainable” rate because states get more federal funds when they enroll people.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the recession accounts for most of the recent uptick in food stamp spending. Costs, as a share of the nation’s economic output, will fall as the job market improves — because that’s how most of our better safety net programs work.

The third myth is that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been a roaring success and thus should be the model for other safety net programs.

The “proof” cited by the budget plan, as by other proponents of this view, is that the “reforms” it initiated cut caseloads dramatically during the first five years, while poverty rates also fell.

Lots of factors account for both, including a strong economy that made it relatively easy for TANF parents to find work — though often not long-term work at living wages.

But TANF caseloads didn’t expand when the economy cooled in the early 2000s. And, as Legal Momentum reports, only 6.6% more poor adults and children were added to the rolls during the first 19 months of the Great Recession.

That’s not because TANF is so successfully lifting poor families out of poverty. It’s because states have incentives to minimize their caseloads — and the benefits they provide. One of the biggest is the declining value of the federal block grant itself.

They’d have this same incentive if they got a fixed, inadequate sum for their food stamp programs, as they would under the House budget plan.

The plan warns that “the poor and vulnerable will undoubtedly be hardest hit” if the federal government experiences a debt crisis due to runaway spending because the “only recourse will be severe, across-the-board cuts.”

Seems the House Republicans have decided to preempt these hypothetical future cuts by making severe, targeted cuts to safety net programs like food stamps now.


House Republicans Vote To End Food Stamp Program As We Know It

May 5, 2011

I remarked awhile ago that parts of the House Republican Study Committee’s global attack on “welfare” could make their way into legislation that had a better chance of passing.

And sure enough. The budget plan House Republicans have passed includes a provision that would convert SNAP (the food stamp program) into a block grant rather like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Lest one doubt the motive, the plan projects savings totaling $127 billion over the first 10 years alone. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates losses to the District of Columbia and its food stamp-dependent households at $350 million.

I’ve written elsewhere about what the block grant could mean for households that depend on food stamps to keep food on the table.

Briefly, the block grant would put an inflexible constraint on spending, while presumably increasing flexibility on issues like participation criteria and benefits.

So Congress or states, at their discretion, could — and probably would have to — change eligibility standards so that people would have to be even poorer to qualify for food stamps and/or reduce monthly benefits so that they no longer had any basis in the costs of a nutritious diet.

We can see how the spending cap/flexibility model could play out by looking at states’ TANF programs.

According to a recent Legal Momentum review, only 40% of eligible families were enrolled in TANF in 2005, as compared to 84% in the last year of its non-block grant predecessor.

Cash benefits for a TANF family of three are less than 50% of the federal poverty line in every states and less than 30% in more than half. In all but two, they’re worth less in real-dollar value than when the program was created.

The food stamp block grant proposal has other radical implications.

It would end the long-standing principle that everyone (except some immigrants) whose income falls below the cut-off can get food stamps — and for as long as their income remains that low.

As with TANF, there would be new work requirements. But unlike TANF, there’d apparently be no federal funding within the program for client assessments, job training or the supportive services some recipients would need to meet the requirements, e.g., child care subsidies.

More importantly, food stamp benefits would be time-limited, just as TANF cash benefits are. After some number of years, people would be kicked out of the program, unless states chose to cover the full costs of the benefits themselves.

Would there by any exemptions — say, for people who are too young, too old or too disabled to work? For people who are working but still can’t afford to buy enough food for themselves or their families?

The budget plan doesn’t say. Doubtful the House members who voted for it — or even the drafters — have thought through such consequential details.

All they’re concerned about is cutting federal spending, except when it comes to the more than 50% of annual appropriations that go to the military.

But, like the RSC, the budget plan styles the food stamp block grant as the next step in “the historic bipartisan welfare reform” that gave us TANF.

Here’s hoping we’ve got no bipartisan support for this one — or lock-step support from Senate Republicans either.


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