Food Hardship Still Common Nationwide and in DC

April 27, 2015

The Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship report delivers some moderately good news about households nationwide. But the news is only comparatively good — and pretty awful for households in some parts of the country.

How FRAC Reports Food Hardship

As I’ve written before, FRAC uses survey data Gallop collects on an ongoing basis from a large sample of households. They’re asked, among other things, “Have there been times in the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

A “yes” is what FRAC refers to as food hardship. It’s roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food insecurity. But obviously, there’s more than just insecurity in not being able to afford enough food.

FRAC, indeed, entitles its report How Hungry Is America? The answers actually tell what percent of American households were hungry at least some of last year — nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

The report also includes household hunger rates for each of the 100 largest metro areas. These combine survey data for 2013 and 2014 so they’ll be reasonably accurate for what are mostly smaller populations.

The Big Food Hardship Picture

More than one in six households — 17.2% — experienced food hardship in 2014, according to the survey responses. This is hardly a figure to crow about. But it’s the first time the rate has been this low since the recession set in.

It hit 19.5% during the last four months of 2008, then varied from nearly as high to nearly as low as the latest rate. The latest rate held constant throughout the year, as apparently the earlier dips didn’t.

We see much more variation among states. The 2014 food hardship rate was over 19% in a dozen states — and nearly 25% in Mississippi. In only one state — North Dakota — was the rate less than 10%.

The picture further dims when we turn to the large metro areas — technically, the metropolitan statistical areas the federal Office of Management and Budget has carved out for agencies’ “statistical activities.”

Food hardship rates were higher than the national rate in all but 35 of the MSAs — and over 20% in 30 of them. These were mostly in the South and Mid-West, but we see pockets of widespread food hardship elsewhere, e.g., in several of California’s major agricultural centers.

Might it be that the law denying SNAP (food stamp) benefits to undocumented immigrants — and most of those here legally for less than five years — explains those egregiously high California rates?

Food Hardship in DC

The District’s food hardship rate was 15.9% — or nearly one in six households. This puts it just about smack-dab in the middle of the state ranking. Though the local unemployment rate has dipped, the District’s food hardship rate was a bit higher last year than in 2012 — and its ranking much higher, i.e., comparatively worse.

As I’ve remarked before, ranking the District among states if problematic because it’s a city — and would be even if granted statehood. But the MSA ranking is no better because the District is part of an area that includes some very well-off suburbs.

This is the perennial problem — and more consequential — with the affordability criteria for publicly-subsidized housing programs. We see it here in the fact that the MSA the District belongs to has a food hardship rate of 13.1% — the fourth lowest among the large metro areas.

Policy Takeaways

We can look at food hardship from two angles. One is not enough income. Too many people still jobless (and here in the District, half of them longer than unemployment insurance benefits cover).

Deplorably low cash benefits from other sources, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income. Too many jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family — or even a single person. Etc.

The other angle is a not strong enough anti-hunger safety net. I call it that because what we have, more in some places than others, is broader than the major federally-funded nutrition assistance programs we usually think of. Think, for example, about our donor-supported food pantries and meal services.

FRAC, however, understandably focuses on the largest of the federal anti-hunger programs — SNAP (the food stamp program). Republicans are clearly hostile to SNAP in its current form — if not to the program itself, than to funding it at the level needed to make hunger as rare as it ought to be in this country.

We know that SNAP benefits are too low to cover a full month’s worth of groceries — let alone a mix that would make for a healthful diet. We know, as I remarked above, that many immigrants can’t get them.

We know that the work requirements imposed on able-bodied adults without dependents cut them off from SNAP, even though they can’t find work or get into a qualifying job training program.

The Farm Bill that Congress finally passed last year could have addressed these problems. Instead, we were lucky that it didn’t make the last worse. And now, House Republicans may actually take a stab at converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have envisioned for five years now.

It’s sad when anti-hunger advocates and allies in the broader human needs community have to invest their limited resources in defense of a program that could do more to alleviate food hardship.

Sadder that some unknown number of people in nearly 20 million* households didn’t always have enough to eat last year.

* This is my calculation, based on the Census Bureau’s 2014 count of households.

 


New Hunger Crisis Looms

January 15, 2015

Approximately 1 million low-income — mostly very poor — people may soon have little or nothing to eat, except what charitable organizations can provide. This isn’t one of those crises we read about in some far-off country devastated by drought, locusts or internal warfare. It’s right here in the U.S. and the result of policy choices.

The 1 million or so people will lose their SNAP (food stamp) benefits in 2016. They’ve done nothing wrong, except to be between the ages of 18 and 50 and to have neither a certified disability that prevents them from working nor a family member who depends on them for care.

As I’ve written before, these so-called able-bodied adults without dependents are generally limited to three months of SNAP benefits within any three-year period unless they’re working at least half time or participating in a job training or workfare program, i.e., an arrangement whereby they work, usually for a public agency, in exchange for their benefits.

The law that sets this limit allows state to request a waiver, either for the state as a whole or for specific areas, when the unemployment rate is extraordinarily high.

The Recovery Act temporarily suspended the time limit nationwide through September 2010. Most states and the District of Columbia asked for and got waivers after that. But the waivers are already disappearing — in some cases, because Republican governors chose not to ask for them.

“We should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout,” says Maine Governor LePage, voicing what one suspects is a common view among his counterparts.

Now unemployment rates in most parts of the country are dropping to the point where states will have, at most, waivers for some deeply depressed areas, even if they’re not hostile to the concept.

This doesn’t mean that the ABAWDs can find jobs if they just try hard enough, however. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, about half have only a high school diploma or the equivalent — and a quarter have neither.

They may still land low-paying service sector jobs. But these won’t necessarily ensure 20 hours a week on a regular basis.

Some will have a hard time getting any job at all. In a county in Ohio that lost its waiver because Governor John Kasich decided to narrowly target his request, more than 34% of ABAWDs has a criminal record — a high barrier to employment, as we know.

The problem goes well beyond dim job prospects because the end of a waiver doesn’t mean that ABAWDs can continue receiving SNAP benefits if they comply with the alternative work requirements.

In fact, as CBPP explains, it’s misleading to call the job training/workfare alternatives work requirements because they’re quite different from the work requirements we’re familiar with in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Though parents in TANF are generally required to participate in a work preparation program if they’re not actually working, they’re not penalized with a benefits loss if there’s no space for them in an appropriate program. Nor are they penalized if they’re actively looking for a job, but haven’t yet found one.

By contrast, states have no obligation to ensure that at-risk ABAWDs can get into a work preparation or workfare program. They generally don’t, CBPP reports. This is in part because SNAP education and training funds fall short of the need. But it’s also because states tend to give preference to other SNAP recipients, e.g., parents with dependent children.

As if that weren’t enough, the law that sets the time limit doesn’t recognize job searches as a qualifying activity. So there’s really nothing that unemployed (and underemployed) ABAWDs can do to retain the generally modest, but crucial SNAP benefits they’ve gotten.

Unimaginable that the majority who lose their benefits can scrape up the money to feed themselves, as CBPP’s brief clearly shows. Their gross incomes average 19% of the federal poverty line — about $2,217 for a single person this year.

About 82% live in households with total incomes below half the FPL — less than $11,925 per year for a four-person household. How will people as poor as this make up for the loss of nutrition assistance averaging $150-$200 a month?

Congress could extend a lifeline to ABAWDs. It could, for example, change the so-called work requirement so that states would have to offer either a job or a slot in a job training or workfare program.

It could include job searches as qualifying work activities. It could at least stretch the time limit to six months — the average amount of time childless adults received SNAP benefits before they were time-limited.

It could increase federal funding for the basic SNAP employment and training grants — currently just $90 million a year.

Is this Congress going to do any of these things? A rhetorical question. So, CBPP says, states should give community groups and service providers advance warning.

Food banks and the programs they help supply surely should know that they’re likely to face even more — and more frequent — requests for free groceries and/or meals. CBPP cites other providers likely to face increased needs for services — or in the case of healthcare clinics, effects on patients they’re already serving.

Advance warning is, of course, better than surprise. But what the nonprofits can do with the heads-up is a question mark. It’s not as if they’ve stayed silent on their needs for private donations, as many of us with email accounts can testify.

Those of us with the wherewithal can hearken such requests. But as Bread for the World’s president said some time ago, “[W]e cannot ‘food-bank’ our way out of hunger…. [W]e need to change the politics.”

The impending plight of ABAWDs cries out for that. But who in the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill is listening?

 


Some Good Things That Happened This Month … and Some Bad

December 22, 2014

Well, you know the big good thing, of course. We didn’t have another government shutdown. And we’ve got a budget that will defer further Republican efforts to gut domestic spending until work on next year’s budget begins. Only a brief respite, however, from efforts to block the President’s recently-announced immigration enforcement policies.

You know some of the big bad things too, I suppose. Banks will again be allowed to invest federally-insured deposits — your savings and mine — in some risky derivatives, e.g., bets on the creditworthiness of borrowers.

And very wealthy people will be allowed to donate a whole lot more to the national political parties — a far less risky investment in election results and policy decisions that serve their interest.

For us who live in the District of Columbia, the override of our vote to legalize small-scale marijuana possession and production is a big bad thing too — if not in itself, then because it’s a grating reminder that Congress can meddle in our local affairs whenever it chooses.

Other good and bad things happened this month that didn’t get as much media attention. Here are four that follow through on issues I’ve been blogging about.

Funding for the National Housing Trust Fund

The National Housing Trust Fund will, at long last, have some money for grants to support the development and preservation of affordable housing — mostly rental housing for the very lowest-income households.

Brief review of the history for those who’ve lost track.

When Congress created the Fund, in 2008, it designated a certain percent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s new business as the main revenue stream. Well, you know what happened to them when the housing market tanked at about the same time.

Despite the recovery, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which took over their affairs, preserved its freeze on their contributions to the Fund.

We’ve had a series of legislative proposals to create another revenue stream. Nothing’s come of any of them — or of the one-time financing the President has included in his proposed budgets.

Earlier this month, FHFA told Fannie and Freddie to begin transferring money to the Fund, as the law that created it envisioned. Hardly the be-all and end-all for the acute shortage of housing that affordable for extremely low-income people, but every bit helps.

A Boost for High-Quality, Affordable Child Care

The budget package Congress just passed includes an additional $75 million for the recently updated and improved Child Care and Development Block Grant. The increase will surely help, though, as CLASP says, far more will be needed.

States will have to spend more to carry out their mandated responsibilities, as my overview of the new block grant law noted. They’ll need even more funds to reverse the downward trend in the number of children with CCDBG-subsidized child care — fewer in 2012 than in any year since 1998.

But again, every bit helps. And it’s encouraging to see continuing bipartisan support for high-quality child care that’s affordable for low-income families, as it surely isn’t without a subsidy.

Another Funding Cut for the IRS

The just-passed budget package cut funding for the Internal Revenue Services by $346 million, leaving the agency with less, in real dollars, than in any year since 2000, when it had fewer tax returns to process and fewer responsibilities as well.

This is a good thing if you’re anxious about having your tax returns audited. Not a good thing if you want an IRS representative to answer questions so you can file an accurate return.

And a very bad thing indeed if you’re worried about insufficient funding for non-defense programs, including those intended to provide both opportunities and a safety net for low-income individuals and families.

Or, for that matter, if you’re worried about the deficit. And we who care about these programs should be, since it’s been used to justify harmful spending cuts, including, but not limited to those Congress has already passed.

Because less money for the IRS means less money to offset spending. The Treasury Department estimates that every $1 spent on enforcement yields a $6 return in revenues collected. Citizens for Tax Justice cites considerably higher ROI figures.

The latest funding cut seems likely to further reduce the number of audits the IRS conducts — especially the potentially high-yielding, complex audits of high-income individuals and big businesses.

Thus, says sharp-witted economist/blogger Jared Bernstein, the budget cut is “a way to cut taxes without explicit tax cuts.” And tax cuts without offsetting revenue-raisers mean a shrinking pot of money for the already-squeezed non-defense share of the budget.

Another Victory for the White Potato

Buried deep in the budget package, we find a provision that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add white potatoes to the list of foods that states must and can include in their own WIC packages, i.e., what low-income mothers of young children can buy with their WIC coupons or the equivalent.

The coupons are supposed to supplement the family’s diet with nutrients it might otherwise not get enough of. So the list includes foods like whole-grain bread, low-fat dairy products and fruits and vegetables. These reflect recommendations by experts at the Institute of Medicine.

The IOM panel did not recommend white potatoes because, in its view, mothers and their young children already ate quite enough of them. The potato industry loudly protested. And Congress members from potato-growing states swiftly launched a series of maneuvers to insert white potatoes into the WIC list.

Now they’ve succeeded — a first-time-ever successful effort to override the scientific judgment the WIC list reflects. Not, however, the first time Congressional potato champions have successfully interfered with dietary guidelines for federally-subsidized meals.

Further proof, were any needed, that bipartisan isn’t always better.

NOTE: I’m painfully conscious that I’ve left out some noteworthy good things — and some bad as well. What would you add?

 


How Should We Make Sure That Homeless People Don’t Go Hungry?

November 17, 2014

This is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, an annual event scheduled to take advantage of the fact that we’re thinking about what we’re thankful for — and about food.

I’m going to take advantage of it here by pondering an issue that the National Coalition for the Homeless, which cosponsors the week, raises in its latest report on the “criminalization of food sharing.”

“Food sharing” refers to distributing food to homeless people, usually outdoors. A growing number of local laws “criminalize” it, NCH says, by imposing restrictions of several major sorts. They’re based on “unjust stereotypes and biases that victimize people experiencing homelessness,” it contends.

Perhaps or perhaps not, as I’ll attempt to show further on. But first a look at the number and types of restrictions NCH finds so objectionable.

Cities That Restrict Food Sharing

NCH doesn’t actually tell us how many cities restrict food sharing. It instead identifies 17 that adopted such restrictions in the last year and a half and lists 12 more that it found too late to fold into the report. Fort Lauderdale recently joined them — and promptly became notorious for acting against the 90-year-old head of a street ministry.

Community pressures “have pushed food-sharing out of populated areas,” e.g., public spaces, in at least four other cities, NCH says. So that makes a minimum of 34 cities that, in its view, have recently engaged in new hostile acts against food sharing.

Types of Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH identifies two major types of food-sharing restrictions, not counting community pressures that programs have felt constrained to respond to.

The first type limits uses of public property, mostly by requiring permits. Some of them are dauntingly costly for individuals and groups who want to share food on a regular basis. Lots of red tape too.

The second type requires food sharers to comply with food safety regulations, e.g., to get a food handler’s certification or to prepare hot meals only in approved locations (presumably those that have passed some sort of inspection).

Arguments Against Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH and the volunteers it quotes clearly believe that anyone should be able to feed homeless people pretty much wherever and whenever they choose. After all, homeless people need to eat. And a free meal served where they tend to congregate is a whole lot safer and healthier than dumpster diving.

Some faith-based organizations view food-sharing restrictions as a violation of their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious duty to feed the hungry. Two courts have agreed.

Professor Baylen Linnekin, who’s also executive director of the libertarian Keep Food Legal Foundation, argues that food-sharing restrictions are discriminatory, as well as unconstitutional on other grounds because they apply only to sharing food with people who don’t sleep with a roof over their heads.

Arguments for (Some) Food-Sharing Restrictions

Cities regulate uses of public spaces for all sorts of reasons — safety, equal access, sanitation, etc. It’s not clear why food-sharing programs should get a free pass when the result can be blocked sidewalks or a park that’s littered with garbage, which serves as a feeding program of sorts for rats.

Property use rules can, of course, be targeted specifically to deter food sharing. The new Fort Lauderdale ordinance, for example, requires outdoor feeding programs to provide portable toilets and hand-washing stations. But it seems a stretch to label every new rule that affects a food-sharing program as an effort to criminalize its activities.

Ditto for requiring programs that feed homeless people to observe basic food safety precautions. Mark Horvath, the genius behind Invisible People and a formerly homeless person, argues that homeless people should have the same assurance of food that’s “healthy and inspected” as the rest of us do.

Beyond this, Horvath believes that feeding homeless people on the streets or in a park can discourage them from going to a nonprofit that will not only feed them, but provide or connect them to other services — and thus end their homelessness. He’s not the only one.

NCH calls the notion that food sharing enables homeless people to remain homeless a myth. They’re homeless, it says, for reasons that have nothing to do with choice, e.g., mental health problems, physical disabilities, lack of affordable housing and/or job opportunities.

But they’re not going to get help with any of these from an outdoor food-sharing program that’s not coordinated with anything else.

Beyond Food Sharing

Horvath suggests that those of us who want homeless people to have enough to eat should donate our time and/or money to a local service provider, though he’s willing to allow that we can feed people in a park so long as we’re also doing something to get them out of it — not, of course, by advocating for local laws that “criminalize” their being there.

NCH itself recognizes that the sort of food-sharing programs it believes local authorities are unjustly targeting don’t solve the problems of hunger and homelessness — or even hunger among homeless people.

It recommends outreach and caseworker support to help homeless people enroll in federal nutrition programs like SNAP (the food stamp program). It recommends more federal funding for them, as well as for food sharing and for organizations that provide food for homeless people in other ways (lots of luck!).

It also recommends changes in federal law to eliminate barriers to SNAP participation, i.e., work requirements, the lifetime bans some states still impose on people who’ve been convicted of drug-related felonies (lots of luck, again).

Setting aside the high improbability of friendlier federal nutrition policies, an approach that coordinates feeding with other forms of help does seem preferable to free-standing, outdoor food-sharing programs.

Yet not all homeless people want to go someplace where they can eat indoors, as NCH Director of Community Organizing Michael Stoops says. Nor apparently do they all respond to caseworkers who go to where they are.

DC Central Kitchen, whose mobile breakfast program NCH approvingly cited in its previous food-sharing report, says it’s piloting something different because “the vast majority of our clients were content to receive a free daily meal without engaging in any meaningful way with our outreach workers.”

But it hopes some other nonprofit will fill the gap. Better fed than dead of malnutrition, one might say — or than driven to desperate acts.

Hard, I think, to decide where we who worry about both hunger and homelessness should net out.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, I discovered another significant voice in the food-sharing debate. It’s a fierce response by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to an NPR interview with a prominent consultant who opposes outdoor feeding programs. The coalition focuses specifically on church groups, but most of the issues it raises are more generally applicable.

 

 


What the Food Stamp Challenge May Do … and What It Can’t

October 13, 2014

D.C. Hunger Solutions invited me to take the Food Stamp Challenge last week. I’d be joining not only fellow District residents, but also Maryland and Virginia residents who’d been recruited by similar Food Research and Action Center initiatives there.

I took a pass. Truth to tell, I couldn’t see myself living on a $33 grocery budget for the week. For food maybe. But doing without the rich, dark coffee I drink from morn to eve? No way.

I told myself that taking the Food Stamp Challenge wouldn’t achieve anything anyway. It’s supposed to raise awareness of hunger — and more particularly, the woeful insufficiency of SNAP benefits.

Well, I already know that, as a long stream of posts indicates. And I felt that I’d bore friends and followers by blogging, tweeting, FaceBook posting, etc. about my daily trials. Do you really care that I scraped the bottom of the peanut butter jar for lunch or how I suffered from caffeine withdrawal syndrome?

Maybe if I extracted lessons, the way D.C. Hunger Solutions’ Executive Director Alex Ashbrook has. But that didn’t occur to me. I suspect I would have been too grumpy and jittery for contemplation anyway.

Rationalizing perhaps. But I still can’t get on board with the notion that the Food Stamp Challenge raises awareness of what it’s like to depend on SNAP benefits — an inherent flaw acknowledged by D.C. Hunger Solutions itself.

On the one hand, those who do depend on SNAP don’t buy food for only a week. They’ll have some oil on hand to fry up potatoes — perhaps some rice and beans in the cabinet because they stocked up during a sale.

Or in some cases they won’t because, unlike any Food Stamp Challenge participant, they don’t have transportation to get to a grocery story (and home with all the bags) — or because they don’t have a kitchen to cook in.

More importantly, their food stamp challenges go on and on. It’s one thing to dine on ramen noodles for a couple of nights. Quite another to know you’ll be serving ramen noodles to your kids for the indefinite future.

Blogger Professor Tracey captured this difference back in 2009, when she critiqued a month-long Food Stamp Challenge undertaken by a reporter.

“He always knew the experiment would end,” she wrote. “I would be willing to wager for the majority of people living on public assistance that for them one of the most disconcerting aspects is having no idea when they will be able to stop relying on public assistance, if ever.”

And, of course, SNAP recipients can’t quit or cheat, as we know some Food Stamp Challenge participants have — and can guess others did as well.

Finally, we need to recall that the amount participants are challenged to live on is a fourth of the average monthly SNAP benefit. That’s about $33 here in the District and nationwide — somewhat less in Maryland and Virginia.

But the average is considerably lower in some states — barely over $29 in three. And all the averages are just that. Lots of SNAP beneficiaries receive much less — as little as $16 a month in all but two states.

This, we’re told, is one reason that only a third of seniors who’d be eligible for SNAP benefits apply, even though many others can’t fend off hunger without groceries from a food pantry. Paltry SNAP benefits also help explain the reliance on nonprofit feeding programs, of course.

Here in the District, the DC Council has budgeted enough in local funds to raise the minimum SNAP benefit to $30 a month — thanks to a campaign spearheaded by D.C. Hunger Solutions.

It has also adopted the mayor’s proposal to raise the minimum LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit. This will preserve the somewhat higher SNAP benefits some residents have received because — again thanks to D.C. Hunger Solutions — it adopted the so-called “heat and eat” option in 2009.

Nine of the 15 states that had adopted “heat and eat” have done the same, putting House Republican leaders into an awful snit.

Did policymakers shore up SNAP benefits because they’d learned from the Food Stamp Challenge?  Hardly. But notwithstanding all that I’ve said, I suppose it’s possible that policymakers and others who can get their stories into major media may, if only briefly, call attention to the benefits problem.

And I suppose it’s also possible that living for a week on a food stamp budget may put fire into the briefly-unsatisfied bellies of some Challenge participants who’d been content to leave advocacy to others.

Yet a series of polls tell us that more voters than not already think the federal government should spend more to combat hunger. Did this matter to Congressional Republicans — House members, in particular — when they set out to slash SNAP spending for the next five years?

When I shared my reservations about the Food Stamp Challenge with an anti-hunger advocate, she said, in so many words, “The people who should take it won’t.” I think they won’t care about the experiences of those who do either.

They’re ideologically driven to cut safety-net spending and will rationalize that however they can. But there’s animus against poor people in some quarters too. They don’t want to work. They use their SNAP benefits for liquor, lap dances, etc. rather than to feed their children. They [you can fill in the rest].

Darned if I know what we can do to persuade these folks that no one wants to depend on public benefits — or that everyone should have enough to eat, every day of the month, fresh fruits and veggies included

Make the Food Stamp Challenge a qualification for public office?

 

 


New Proof That SNAP Benefits Are Too Low

September 25, 2014

As Hunger Action Month draws to a close, I’m recurring to what some of you followers may understandably view as an obsession — the need to increase SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Two recent reports by U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers provide further proof.

Food Insecurity, Despite SNAP

As you may have read, USDA reported that 14.3% of American households — about 17.5 million — were food insecurity during at least part of 2013. At least 8 million had incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP.* And 53% of them received SNAP benefits during the entire year.

In other words, by definition, they didn’t always have “access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” benefits notwithstanding. They didn’t all suffer from hunger, however, because a household may be food insecure if it recurrently can’t afford balanced meals for everyone.

But 23.9% of them had what USDA calls “very low food security.” This means that at least one member, at least some of the time had to skimp on or altogether skip meals because the household didn’t have the resources to buy enough food, healthful or otherwise.

Both the overall food insecurity and the “very low food security” rates for SNAP households are somewhat higher than the 2012 rates. And those were somewhat higher than the 2011 rates.

Food Costs and SNAP Benefits

The households surveyed for the food (in)security report spent, on average, $50 per person per week for food — somewhat over $6.00 more per person than what the maximum SNAP benefit for a three-member household would have covered.

USDA provides a better — if somewhat oblique — measure of the adequacy of SNAP benefits by using the costs of its Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining those benefits.

Adjusting for household size and the age/gender configurations used for the market baskets the TFP comprises, researchers found that the typical food secure household spent 21% more for food than the TFP cost.

Another study by USDA researchers focused on whether adults who received SNAP benefits drank more high-calories beverages than other low-income adults. The full answer (behind a paywall, alas) is that they didn’t.

I mentioned the study here because, as the Food Research and Action Center helpfully reports, the average SNAP recipient surveyed lived in a household whose monthly benefits typically fell $209 short of what it spent on food.

All told, 81% of the recipients surveyed spent more on food than their SNAP benefits covered — obviously, a whole lot more in many cases. The average household’s benefits covered somewhat less than 58% of its monthly food bills.

As you may recall, Congress cut all SNAP benefits by using for other purposes funds the Recovery Act had allocated for a boost. The boost was originally supposed to last until the customary food-cost adjustments to SNAP benefits caught up with it.

The cuts went into effect last November. So they probably aren’t reflected in the food insecurity figures I cited above — or, I would guess, in the shortfalls the beverage survey found.

A Long-Standing Problem

We’ve had evidence that SNAP benefits are insufficient — and why — for a goodly number of years.

FRAC has repeatedly cited defects in the TFP — unrealistically low costs among them. It’s been raising this issue since the early 1990s, when it cited state and local studies showing that the actual costs of the TFP were higher for low-income families than the cost USDA set.

A two-city study conducted in 2007 found that a family of four receiving the maximum SNAP benefit would have had to come up with $2,500 more a year in the lower-cost city — and $3,165 in the higher-cost city — to cover the costs of foods in the TFP.

And, as a wrote awhile ago, a committee of National Research Council and Institute of Medicine experts conclude that one of the key assumptions built into the TFP is “out of synch” with the way most families put food on the table today — and inferentially, with the way many SNAP recipients can.

None of this seems to make a whit of difference to our federal policymakers. Witness the Farm Bill Congress recently passed — and what it might have passed if Republicans had controlled the Senate. But maybe some day ….

* The 8 million are households with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income maximum for SNAP. The USDA report uses this percent of the FPL as the cut-off for reporting SNAP participation. But 27 states and the District of Columbia have exercised an option to raise their gross income cut-offs. So there may actually have been more food insecure SNAP households.

 

 


Hunger in America Widespread and Frequent, New Report Shows

September 8, 2014

About one in seven people in America — 46.5 million in all — depend, at least in part, on nonprofit feeding programs to stave off hunger. This is one of many, many things we can learn from Feeding America’s report on its latest survey of the agencies it helps supply and their clients.

These many, many things gel into different stories. I’ll focus on one of them here — the fact that in this very wealthy country of ours, a very large number of people can’t always afford to eat healthfully, SNAP (the food stamp program) notwithstanding.

But first a few words about the programs themselves. About two-thirds of the more than 58,000 programs that Feeding America helps supply through its food bank network provide groceries.

Most of the others provide foods already prepared. They include so-called soup kitchens, meals delivered to the homes of elderly and disabled people and food services for homeless shelters, other residential facilities, senior centers and daycare centers for children.

Some provide meals and/or snacks to kids who participate in after-school activities, either as their exclusive service or in addition to the aforementioned.

So the programs reach diverse people in diverse ways. Feeding America’s new report reflects responses from more than 60,000 of them.

Some Key Facts About Program Clients

In some respects, it’s hard to generalize about the beneficiaries of the feeding programs because, as I said, they’re a diverse group — and the report is chock-full of data points. For those of us who attend to the poverty dialogue, if we should call it that, a couple of things jump out.

More program clients are white than belong to any other race/ethnicity group — 43.4% of the total and nearly half of the prepared-meal recipients.

Among the adults, 72.5% have, at most, a high school diploma or the equivalent. But 20.5% have at least some college education — and 5.7% a four-year college degree or higher. Slightly over 10% were enrolled in school at the time the survey was conducted.

Nearly 54% of all clients lived in a household where someone was employed during the year. The percent is considerably higher — 70.6% — for households with children.

Yet unemployment and under-employment are clearly problems. Only 34.3% of households included any member who’d worked at least six months out of the last twelve. And only 43% included someone who’d worked at least 30 hours a week.

Both these percents are higher for households with children — 48.9% and 47% respectively. Yet obviously lack of paying work helps account for their food assistance needs.

Ongoing Financial Hardships

Several years ago, Feeding America reported that visits to food pantries had “become the new normal.” This is apparently still true. The number of times individuals and families received groceries and/or meals was well over eight times greater than the number served — 389.2 million over the course of a year.

What this tell us, of course, is that a great many weren’t coping with a one-time emergency. Both the employment figures and others indicate ongoing financial hardships.

About half of the households the grocery and meal programs served were officially poor, i.e. living below the federal poverty line. They include 11.7% who reported no income at all during the past twelve months.

An additional 33.2% had incomes between 101% and 185% of the FPL — the cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

The median annual income for all households served was $9,175 — less than a fifth of the median for all U.S. households. The median for those with children was somewhat higher — $11,721. But because these households are larger, 77% lived below the FPL.

All but 6.8% of client households lived in what the report characterizes as a “nontemporary housing arrangement,” e.g., an apartment, a house they owned, were paying for or sharing.

But that doesn’t mean they were all stably housed. Nearly 27% had lived in at least two places during the past year. Somewhat over 22% started doubling-up with family members or someone else. And 15.5% had been foreclosed on or evicted within the last five years.

What About Food Stamps?

Notwithstanding their need for food assistance, only 54.8% of client households received SNAP benefits. This seems a low participation rate. And the survey data don’t altogether explain it.

All we know for sure is that about 28% of the households had incomes above the standard eligibility cut-off. But most states and the District of Columbia have higher gross income cut-offs now.

The report suggests that some others might have had savings and/or other assets above the very low limit that some states still impose.

Some probably didn’t qualify because of their immigration status. Federal law bars not only undocumented immigrants, but most of those who’ve been in the country legally for less than five years.

It’s still the case that more households probably could have qualified for SNAP and for various reasons, chose not to apply. The benefits obviously wouldn’t have enabled all them to keep food on the table, however.

About 86% of the client households enrolled in SNAP reported that they use them up in three weeks or less. The same was true for 88.8% of the SNAP households with children.

Struggles, Even With the Feeding Programs

Large numbers of households had to make trade-offs between food and some other necessity — or perhaps multiple necessities.

For example, 57.1% reported having to choose between paying for food or for housing at least once during the prior year. Percents were considerably higher for other trade-offs — nearly 66% for medical care, 66.5% for transportation and 69.3% for utilities.

For many, these weren’t one-time hard choices. More than 30% reported making them every month, except for housing. And that percent wasn’t much lower.

These weren’t the only types of choices households made. Well over 78% — and 83.5% of those with children — reported buying “inexpensive, unhealthy food.” More than half reported knowingly eating food past its expiration date.

And 40% said they watered down food and/or drink. The percent is higher for households with children — 44.8%.

So there you have it — or rather, some select pieces of it. That we should have such hunger in America today is, to my mind, simply shameful — and a call to action on various fronts.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 200 other followers