Responding to one of my food stamp posts, Dianne comments, “I am over 65, SSI/Social Security and get $143 a month food allotment. And the last week have nothing. Tea, sugar and do without!”
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows she’s far from alone.
The researchers looked at households where a “working-age” member had a disability — in other words, an adult between the ages of 18 and 64. But this is a mere technicality because Dianne may not be much older.
The food insecurity rate for the target household group was about twice that of households that had no working-age disabled member, according to their responses to the Census Bureau’s 2009-10 surveys.
These, however, were not all households where the adult in question was too severely disabled to work, as Dianne may be, since she’s receiving SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits.
About one in three households in this group were food insecure, i.e., couldn’t always afford enough of the right kinds of foods for everyone to eat healthfully.
More than half of these — 17.3% — had what USDA calls “very low food security.” They’re households like Dianne’s, where at least one member recurrently went hungry.
This acute food insecurity rate, as I prefer to call it, was nearly four times greater than the rate among households that included no disabled working-age adult.
Well, SNAP (food stamp) benefits are supposed to protect against hunger — indeed, to provide “a national nutrition safety net.” They obviously don’t, though we’d have vastly more — and worse — hunger without them.
One reason is that not all households stalked by hunger get them. This is apparently the case for households the USDA study focused on.
Slightly under a third of households with a severely-disabled working-age adult participated in SNAP, even though special rules tend to make them eligible at higher gross income levels and, in some cases, with no asset limit.
Of those who did, 31% suffered from acute food insecurity anyway.
The USDA report understandably bypasses the possibility that SNAP benefits are just too low for recipients to get through the month without running short.
It does, however, flag some factors that may disproportionately affect people with disabilities, e.g., difficulties getting to a grocery store and/or preparing meals on their own.
Recall that the Thrifty Food Plan — the current basis for food stamp benefits — assumes that recipients will make many of their meals from scratch.
SNAP also assumes that households will have 30% of their own income to supplement their benefits. This, as the Food Research and Action Center has said, is an outdated assumption.
But it’s perhaps especially out of sync for households that include someone with a severe disability.
On the one hand, both SSI and SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits are very low.
For SSI, the average for someone who isn’t elderly is $525 a month, according to a new fact sheet prepared for the Center on American Progress. For most, it’s their only source of income.
The average for SSDI recipients — mostly people who used to work, but are now too disabled to do so — is about $1,129 a month. It drops to $962 a month for those who were formerly low-wage workers.
Some of these recipients undoubtedly live in households where another adult works. But as the USDA report notes, the working member’s earnings may be lower than they’d otherwise be because of the time needed to provide care.
At the same time, expenses for households with a disabled member are often unusually high. There are health care costs, of course, and perhaps home care for help with daily personal needs.
There may be costs for adaptive equipment like a wheelchair or a special type of telephone. Costs for an emergency alert service.
A study the USDA report cites found that someone with a disability that limited work for a year or more would need nearly three times the income of someone with no work-related disability to have the same food insecurity rate.
We see this finding play out in the analysis itself. Even with incomes three times the federal poverty level, 13% of households with a severely-disabled working-age member were food insecure.
USDA concludes that “public and private food assistance programs tailored specifically to households with members who have disabilities may be necessary to substantially reduce their food insecurity.”
No argument here. But we’ve clearly got a bigger fix needed than specific tailoring, since more than half of all households with SNAP benefits are nevertheless food insecure.
Reforms to bring SSI benefits into the 21st century would help too.