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 Report Details DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

February 10, 2010

When we moved to Capitol Hill, our house was near the frontier of gentrification. Over the years, we’ve watched property values soar and small apartment buildings give way to condos.

The townhouse next door to us–described by a former owner as a nice place for one person or two people who get along very well–recently sold for more than half a million dollars. A sign on a nearby condo advertises units beginning at $400,000. Rental units are scarce, and most list at over $1,500 a month.

A new report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute puts our experience in perspective. Using Census Bureau data from 2000-2007, it documents the growing affordable housing crisis throughout the District.

  • A loss of more than a third of the District’s low-cost rental units (units with rent and utility costs of $750 or less).
  • A 55% increase in the number of units costing more than $1,500.
  • A loss of 43,000 homes valued at $250,000 or less–from more than half of all owner-occupied homes to just one-sixth.

Of course, this change in the real estate market reflects changes in our local economy–increases in professional, business and health care services, IT and real estate development itself. These have produced a large increase in higher-income households.

But the shrinkage of affordable housing is putting stress on a growing number of people. More than 40% of all D.C. households have housing costs above the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s affordability standard, i.e., 30% of income. That’s 20,000 more households than in 2000.

Needless to say, households at the bottom of the income scale are faring worst.

  • More than 60% of those with incomes below 30% of the area median income* are paying more for housing than the HUD affordability standard.
  • Two-thirds of the households that pay more than they can afford have incomes below half the AMI.
  • Nearly 50,000 households pay more than half their income for housing. Of these, 85% have incomes below half the AMI.

The D.C. government provided substantial funding for affordable housing during the period covered by DCFPI’s report. Funding for three key programs–the Housing Production Trust Fund, the Local Rent Supplement Program and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development–increased, in current dollars, from $7 million in 2000 to $92 million in 2007.

Funding rose again in 2008–to $123 million. Then the impacts of the recession set in–a drastic drop in HPTF funds, which come from fees paid to record deeds and transfers, and cuts made to balance the District’s budget. DCFPI says that the current budget for core housing programs is just over half what it was in Fiscal Year 2008. This was before the Mayor’s recent spending cut order.

If we had an affordable housing crisis in the years covered by the report, imagine what it is now. Rents are still very high. And many more people are unemployed or struggling to make do with part-time jobs.

DCFPI suggests that the District try to maintain funding for some stalled affordable housing projects and for existing rent subsidies. This is a modest, politically savvy recommendation. I have a hard time believing the District couldn’t do better.

* The measure DCFPI uses here is the same measure HUD uses for housing vouchers and certain grant programs. HUD’s affordability standard depends on household size. In 2007, the AMI for a DC-area three-person household was $85,100.

Emergency Food Providers Short On Supplies

February 7, 2010

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is one of the lesser known but important parts of our safety net. In fact, I knew virtually nothing about it until I started working on this posting.

Thanks to the ‘net, I’ve learned how something I’ve long opposed–agricultural price supports–is linked to something I deeply care about–ensuring that poor people have enough to eat. Organizations representing these seemingly disparate interests have come together because TEFAP urgently needs additional funds.

Here’s the story.

Under TEFAP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes food commodities to states, which then distribute them to food banks and/or directly to emergency food providers like soup kitchens and pantries. Feeding America, which networks food banks across the country, says that TEFAP provides a steady stream of foods to the banks–often the most nutritious foods they distribute to hungry people.

USDA purchases some of the commodities with an annual appropriation that’s linked to the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan–the agency’s lowest-cost estimate of a nutritionally-adequate market basket. It also distributes so-called bonus commodities, i.e., foods it buys to support producers’ prices when supply exceeds demand.

In Fiscal Year 2009, the regular TEFAP appropriation provided $250 million for food purchases. The economic recovery act added $150 million. And states got about $400 million in bonus commodities.

For Fiscal Year 2010, the regular appropriation for food purchases dropped to $248 million due to the dip in food prices. An additional $60 million was appropriated specifically for cheese and other dairy. (Do we perceive a successful lobbying effort here?)

So it seems that funds for regular commodity purchases are down by $92 million. Restrictions on how USDA can use certain carryover funds mean that bonus commodity donations could drop to less than $200 million.

Meanwhile, the recession has strained the capacities of food banks and the providers they serve. A September 2009 Feeding America survey found that:

  • More than half of the 176 participating food banks or the agencies that help them distribute food had had to turn people away.
  • About 78% of the food banks or their partner agencies had to reduce the amount of food they distributed or the frequency of distributions.
  • For 91% of the food banks, unemployment was a critical factor in increasing the need for emergency food.

When the survey was conducted, the unemployment rate was 9.8%. It was just one-tenth of a percent lower in January and expected to peak at 10.5%-11% in the third quarter of this fiscal year. Last month 6.3 million people had been jobless for at least 27 weeks–900,000 more than in September.

So there’s every reason to believe that needs for emergency food assistance have already increased and will increase further before the Fiscal Year 2011 budget kicks in.

The organizations mentioned above are calling on the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committees to increase Fiscal Year 2010 funding for TEFAP by $250 million.

If I’ve got the math right, this would still leave food banks with less in food commodities from USDA than they had last year. But it would minimize the emergency in emergency food assistance programs and give a boost to farmers too.

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.


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