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.


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.


Food Security Report Shows Federal Nutrition Programs Working, But Not Well Enough

December 8, 2010

The recent U.S. Department of Agriculture household food security report confirms what we were already quite sure of. The number of food insecure households increased again last year. These are households that, at some point during the year, couldn’t afford to buy enough food for all members to have “active healthy lives.”

The increase wasn’t all that great — 17.4 million households, as compared to 17 million in 2008. But both years’ food insecurity rates were the highest USDA had found since it started doing nationally-representative surveys in 1995.

Similarly, the number of families that were very food insecure inched up a bit — from 6.7 million to 6.8 million. In other words, during the last two years, about a third of all food insecure families had such limited resources that at least one member sometimes had to cut back on the size of his/her meals or skip some altogether.

A breakdown of the household figures tells us that more than 50 million people — 16.6% of the population — suffered food insecurity last year. For children, the rate was an alarming 23.2%. That’s 17.2 million children at risk of hunger.

While this is bad news, it could have been much worse, given the sharp rise in the unemployment rate — up from 7.4% at the end of 2008 to 10% by the end of 2009.

As many have observed, the food stamp program seems to be serving its safety net function, with participation continuously rising to new record levels.

On the other hand, the federal nutrition assistance programs aren’t reaching nearly as many low-income households as they should. According to the Food Research and Action Center, only about two-thirds of eligible people are enrolled in the food stamp program.

During the 2008-9 school year, fewer than half the children poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch also got free or reduced-price breakfasts at their school. Figures for federally-subsidized summer meal programs are even worse.

Nor apparently are the benefits the major programs offer sufficient. About 35% of food insecure households and 56% of very food insecure households received food stamps. By definition, they still couldn’t consistently afford to keep enough food on the table.

Turning to the District, the figures we get are less accurate because USDA uses three-year averages to compensate for small state-level samples. The latest figures thus minimize the impacts of the recession.

With that caveat, 12.9% of D.C. households were food insecure, putting the District below the national rate and smack dab in the middle of a state-by-state ranking.

Somewhat less than a third of these households (4.5%) were very food insecure. On this measure, the District ranks lower than 36 states. So, as DC Hunger Solutions says, local efforts may be paying off.

We don’t know how many of the food insecure households were receiving food stamps during the period covered by the USDA average. What we do know is that, beginning in April 2009, those that did began receiving higher-than-usual food stamp benefits due to the nationwide 13.6% maximum boost provided by the economic recovery act.

Now the duration of the boost has been scaled back — first to help pay for some additional fiscal relief to the states and again when the House adopted the Senate’s version of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act. The Congressional Research Services estimates the loss when the boost ends at $10 to $15 per person per month.

Look for a bigger uptick in food insecurity when that happens, both nationwide and here in the District.


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