House Agriculture Committee Finds a Lot to Like in SNAP

January 12, 2017

When I learned that the House Agriculture Committee planned a top-to-bottom review of SNAP (the food stamp program), I thought it was a setup for legislation along the lines the right-wing majority had already teed up.

But the report the Committee recently issued is remarkably even-handed—and very informative. It does flag problems, including some that right-wingers have cited in attacks on our safety net generally. But they don’t support a major overhaul.

In fact, they bolster arguments against the sort that House Speaker Paul Ryan and fellow travelers have proposed. Here are a few of examples.

SNAP Gives States a Lot  of Flexibility

The report details the many choices SNAP affords state agencies. Most have to do with administration—how often they’ll require beneficiaries to prove they’re still eligible, how swiftly they’ll adjust benefits when income changes, etc.

But some are choices that can make more low-income people eligible, within the confines set by federal law. States may, for example, opt for so-called broad-based categorical eligibility, which opens the door to families whose incomes, before allowable deductions (but not after) exceed the standard cut-offs.

This, says the report, is the most significant of all state options. It does, however, note that states may also opt to exclude the value of certain assets that would otherwise disqualify them—the value of a car, for example, money in the bank.

This too makes more people eligible — and more able to both weather emergencies and achieve greater economic independence.

SNAP Affords Ample Room for Civil Society Organizations

Ryan says that the federal government has “crowded out civil society,” discouraging community-level organizations from engaging in efforts to help the poor.

The report emphatically argues that combating hunger in our country requires the participation of federal programs, as well as a range of local and state-level organizations.

It cites examples of the ways that charitable organizations and federal safety net programs work together, e.g., nonprofit food banks, supported in part by the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

And it quotes testimony from a food bank CEO on the need to keep federal nutrition programs strong so that the dollars from private donations can support innovations.

SNAP Is Not a Hammock

The report embraces the unobjectionable view that work is the best pathway out of poverty. But it cites data showing that nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants can’t be expected to work—because they’re too young, too old or too disabled.

Household-level data do suggest that more of the remaining participants could work, but didn’t during an average month in 2015—or rather, could work if the labor market had enough jobs available and they the skills to qualify.

The report could have veered into time limits at this point. It instead finds two areas where states could improve their programs within the law as-is.

First, some need to do a better job of enforcing SNAP work requirements, it says. The requirements it refers to aren’t those that have caused many thousands of able-bodied adults without dependents to lose their benefits.

They’re applicable to all unemployed adults who aren’t exempt for various reasons, e.g., because they’re responsible for caring for a disabled family member.

These presumptively employable adults must register for work, accept a job if offered and not quit voluntarily without good cause or reduce their working hours below 30 per week. So there’s no penalty if they can’t find a job offering a set minimum number of hours.

The report also strongly suggests that some states — or counties within states — don’t have SNAP employment and training programs, though all receive E&T funds.

“Most,” it says, quoting testimony, “have consisted of a referral to a job search program.” So it’s agencies that need to shape up, not SNAP beneficiaries.

The report provides examples of effective programs and hopefully cites pilots the current Farm Bill is funding.

It strongly implies that effective programs combined with “reasonable requirements, strongly enforced” will suffice to engage SNAP participants in activities leading to gainful employment.

“There is little evidence that harsh provisions are necessary,” it says, again quoting testimony.

On the other hand, the report does suggest that SNAP, combined with other safety net programs can discourage participants from working their way up the income scale because what they gain in pay is offset by what they lose in benefits.

To this extent then, it adopts Ryan’s view that the multiplicity of “welfare” programs, each operating under its own rules creates what’s often referred to as a cliff. For him, this proves that they’re a “poverty trap.”

The report instead notes that states may convert the cliff into downward slope by providing transitional SNAP benefits when families leave Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because they’ve found paying work.

And it includes one important data point that argues against the view that SNAP participants choose to remain poor or near-poor rather than lose their benefits. Specifically, most participants remain in the program for, at most, two years.

The Ag Committee Chair clearly aimed to build bridges between his conservative and progressive colleagues in preparation for the next reauthorization of SNAP.

“You will find nothing in this report that suggests gutting SNAP or getting rid of a program that does so much for so many people,” he and the chair of the Nutrition Subcommittee tell us in their prefatory statement.

At least some of us won’t find everything we’d like to have seen. For example, the report touches only tangentially on the adequacy of SNAP benefits, though it includes a section on promoting healthful eating.

But it does, as the statement says, show “there is common ground to be found both in understanding the needs of the population SNAP serves, and in working collaboratively to improve SNAP.”

 

Advertisement

Food for Thought About the Food on Our Thanksgiving Table

November 23, 2016

Last December, Barbara Ehrenreich took us to task for exercising gratitude. Well, not all of us, but the many who’ve heeded the research—often distilled into self-help guidance—that promotes gratitude because it’s so good for us.

Even those of us who still actually bother to thank people who’ve done nice things for us—rather than, for example, just jotting them down a journal—don’t escape scot-free.

Because, says Ehrenreich, we’re unlikely to feel thankful for the labors of low-income people—and because our gratitude, in and of itself, won’t make a damn bit of difference to them.

The op-ed struck me at the time as more appropriate for Thanksgiving than for the new year we were about to ring in. And perhaps Ehrenreich wrote it for publication then. In any event, I’m recurring to it now, thinking especially about the people whose labors feed us.

Not them only, however. Our Thanksgiving celebrations depend on other low-income people too—the clerks at the grocery stores, the workers in the other stores where we bought the napkins, candles, etc.

They won’t all have a Thanksgiving Day because many of the grocery stores will stay open so we can pick up what we forgot—and because a goodly number of us will start our holiday shopping while we’re still digesting turkey. That, at least, is what stores offering the extra-early Black Friday sales intend.

But back to our food.

Recent events have raised our consciousness of very disgruntled people in rural communities. They’re not, for the most part, actually poor. Or so one gathers from the polls. But many of the people in rural areas are—among them, those who plant, weed and harvest the fruits and vegetables that we’ll have on our tables.

They’re generally supposed to get paid at least the federal minimum wage. So they’d earn slightly over $15,000 a year if they worked full time, year round. But many don’t because crops have growing seasons.

That’s only one reason that farm workers are reportedly among the lowest-paid in the country—paid so little that 25% of their families have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the Department of Labor’s latest (not altogether current) survey.

For one thing, not all farm owners have to pay the minimum wage. The Fair Labor Standards Act exempts those who use fewer than 500 “man days” during any calendar quarter, i.e., the equivalent of 500 people working each day.

Sounds like a lot, it but translates into roughly seven workers per quarter, according to Farmworker Justice. It means, in fact, that about a third of our country’s farm workers can legally get paid less than the minimum wage.

Others may wind up short because they’re paid by how much they harvest—so much per bucket, for example. The burden thus falls on them to prove how much they’ve earned, whether more than the minimum wage or less. If less, than they’re owed the minimum.

That’s the most they’re entitled to under federal law. The FLSA doesn’t require farm owners to pay time and a half to workers who put in more than 40 hours a week. California and a few other states mandate overtime pay.

But surely not all farm workers who ought to get it do. Nearly a third of those the Labor Department surveyed spoke no English whatever. Nearly as many spoke only a little. And only 20% said they could read English well.

They’re ripe for wage theft and other abuses, e.g., lack of protection from poisonous pesticides. This is all the more true because nearly half—or perhaps even more—have no legal authority to work here.

Even farm workers born in this country or equipped with green cards run more than the usual risks if they try organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions because they’ve no protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

Well, most of us look forward to Thanksgiving dinner because of the turkey, not the green beans or the mashed sweet potatoes (especially if they’ve got marshmallows mixed in). The pies are a different matter, of course.

What I’ve already said about farm workers applies to those who feed birds, clean up after them and toss them into crates, then onto the trucks that take them to the slaughterhouses—commonly and euphemistically called processing plants.

What life’s like for workers in plants that process turkeys isn’t easily learned—at least, for someone sitting at a computer. But we can learn quite a bit about workers in chicken processing plants. And presumably conditions are comparable.

Pay is low, though generally more than the minimum wage. Hours can be extremely long. But we can guess from past investigations that workers don’t always get paid for overtime. A recent survey of workers in Arkansas poultry plants found that 62% had experienced wage theft of one sort or another.

Further—and more singular problems—have to do with working conditions. Processing involves a lot of tasks, as Oxfam America explains in its lengthy report on workers in the processing plants owned by our major suppliers.

Basically, the birds get hung upside down on a line that speeds along very fast. Workers must keep up. They can’t always go to the bathroom when they need to. They suffer unusually high rates of repetitive motion disorders and other injuries. They’re exposed to harmful chemicals.

They can’t take time off when they’re sick or in too much pain to work without losing pay—and perhaps their jobs. Well-founded fears of job loss causes them to put up with whatever they’re subject to—especially immigrants, documented and otherwise.

I suppose it seems I’m trying to infuse guilt into what’s supposed to be a special day of gratitude. That’s not my intent, though I confess to feeling a little queasy about the low price I paid for my turkey.

Readers who felt stung by Ehrenreich’s column argued that pausing to focus on what we’re grateful for can make us more generous—even “lead to greater efforts to bring about social change.”

I see some truth in this—if we move beyond the things we’re grateful for to a heartfelt understanding of the privileges they imply and beyond that too. Because knowing we’re more privileged than some other folks does nothing

The food on our table (wine too maybe), the people gathered round, the warmth of the house, the security—these are all privileges and, often as not, derive from injustices in our social and economic systems.


Senate’s Child Nutrition Act Update Needs a Fix

October 11, 2016

I’d thought we’d have a new Child Nutrition Act by now. If not that, a bill that had passed in the Senate and needed only a House majority vote. We’re close — and with a bill that has promising features. (See my summaries here and here.)

But one provision has hung up the Senate vote. It may seem highly technical. But it’s more because the current version could deny free school meals to some children who sorely need them.

The provision aims to strengthen the process school districts must use to ensure that only poor and near-poor children get their meals free or at very low cost.

As things stand now, they must verify the family incomes of 3,000 of the applications they’ve approved — or 3% if that’s less.

The revised version would establish a sliding scale, generally beginning at 10,000 or 10% and ratcheting down to the current minimum, based on several performance measures, e.g., a very high percent of applications that confirm children’s eligibility.

A sticking point, as you might imagine, is the sheer number of applications school districts must begin with. Another, however, is that the bill enlarges the pool from which they must be pulled to include families that don’t have to apply in order for their kids to get free meals.

Children whose families receive SNAP (food stamp) and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits are categorically eligible. In other worse, they quality automatically. School districts would have to include some of them in their sample.

Other very low-income children also qualify automatically — those in foster care or migrant families, those in Head Start, a comparable state-funded program or a federally-funded program for runaways and those who are homeless, according to the definition that applies to public school students.

These children may also get swept into the verification pool. But schools may not be able to get all their parents to verify their incomes. The families may have no fixed address, for example — highly likely for the homeless and migrant. They may not have phone service either.

Parents who receive the verification request may not read English well enough to understand it — or even well enough to understand they must get someone to help because their kids otherwise won’t get fed.

But if schools don’t receive the required income proof, they can’t continue serving them free meals.

And that’s not all. Children — and all their family members — could also lose out on meals during the summer, when school isn’t in session.

The new CNA would allow states to provide low-income parents with $30 a month to partly compensate for their higher food costs during the summer. But only parents of children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals could qualify.

So if they didn’t pass the income-eligibility screening, they’d have to come up with the total cost of feeding their kids during the summer, unless they could rely on one of the regular summer meal programs.

Many can’t, for various reasons — and even fewer for the whole of the summer vacation. So what the bill gives with one hand, it would take away with the other.

Now, this is a problem that the Senate Agriculture Committee can resolve. Its chair and the most senior Democratic member work well together. The other members generally do too. They unanimously agreed on the bill we now have.

And we’ve no reason to believe that any of them wanted to take meals away from the very disadvantaged children at risk.

The Committee did, however, assume that the ramped-up verification process would find more children ineligible — and thus free up funds that would otherwise have to subsidize their free and reduced-price meals.

Those funds are already committed to provisions that would better ensure well-nourished children — the summer food benefit, among them.

And the Congressional Budget Office has already delivered a cost estimate that could cause some Senators to balk — not to mention the Republican majority in the House. That’s the heart of the hang-up, I understand.

Start tinkering with the verification requirements and (perish the thought) fewer children lose their free or very low-cost breakfasts, lunches and maybe even after-school snacks.

Well, we won’t have a new CNA before we have a new Congress. The clock is ticking toward the end of the session. And members won’t be in Washington for much of it.

They’ll presumably be preoccupied with must-pass bills when they briefly return after the elections — another spending measure to prevent a government shutdown, for example. So the Ag Committee has time for a fix that won’t harm low-income families.

No telling what will happen then. The House committee responsible for the CNA has produced an alarmingly different bill, though, at this point, not much different verification requirements.

So if the House passes the committee bill, negotiators might agree on them, especially if the Senate bill remains as-is. But they’d face much bigger challenges reaching agreement on the rest.

So the CNA might still go yet another year — or more — without reauthorization. Yet one can hope for a better outcome because the Senate bill would do more to deliver on the current law’s promise of “healthy, hunger-free children.”

That better outcome begins with the Senate’s passing a bill that doesn’t cause some of the most likely to be hungry and thus unhealthy to lose the free meals they get now.

Doesn’t end there, as I suggested. But it’s still the best way forward now.

 


How Public Policies Helped Drive Down the Family Food Insecurity Rate

September 26, 2016

My recent post on SNAP (food stamp) benefits used the latest food (in)security figures to show that those benefits don’t always provide sufficient supplemental nutrition assistance. This is surely true. But it’s a relatively small slice of the story the new report tells.

So here’s the upside and how we might at least partly account for it.

Less Food Insecurity and Less Out-in-Out Hunger

First off, as I noted, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a significantly lower food insecurity rate for 2015 — 12.7% of households, as compared to 14% in 2014. The drop translates into well over 1.5 million households or roughly 5.8 million fewer food insecure people.

The “very low food security” rate also declined, from 5.6% to a flat 5%. So roughly 2.9 million fewer people lived in households where at least one member at least sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

New Low for Food Insecure Children

As in the past, families with children had a higher food insecurity rate than households without — 16.6%, as compared to 10.9%.

But children themselves were food insecure in only 7.8% of families — roughly 3 million. And only 0.7% — about 274,000 — had such severe food insecurity that a child sometimes had to skip a meal or even go without food for a day.

“Only” may seem to trivialize the child hunger problem. But the share of households with food insecure children was the lowest since USDA began tracking the way it does now, in 1998.

How the Economy Helped

The recovering labor market surely helps account for the lower food insecurity and hunger rates. The former peaked at 14.9% in 2011 and the latter ticked back up to 5.7%.

The unemployment rate than averaged 8.9%. It was probably around 5% when households were asked about their food security last year. So more had a breadwinner actually earning bread. And fewer breadwinners were working part-time, though they wanted full-time jobs.

Average hourly wages in the private sector grew, though not as much as labor advocates — and presumably the workers they advocate for — would have liked.

At the same time, auto fuel prices plummeted. And prices for food and most other commonly-purchased goods and services barely increased — or not at all.

These three factors together suggest that some households had enough more to spend on food — and could make the extra go far enough — to shift them into the food secure majority.

How Policies Probably Helped, Though Not Food Related

I earlier cited two public policies that almost surely help explain the marked growth in median household incomes last year. Both minimum wage increases and the Federal Reserve’s decision to let the labor market get tighter presumably meant more money in more families’ budgets for food.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests other policy-related factors. These include the Affordable Care Act, especially, it says, in states that expanded their Medicaid programs.

We shouldn’t altogether discount other ACA features that could have given households more money to spend on food — the substantial subsidies for low-income people who purchased their health insurance on an exchange, for example, and the extended funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

How Nutrition Assistance Policies Helped

SNAP caseloads have steadily shrunk as workers who’d lost their jobs during the Great Recession found others — or got more hours back into their schedules. They’ve unfortunately also shrunk because some very poor people couldn’t find jobs or slots in a training program that would keep them eligible for SNAP.

The Center, however, suggests that SNAP may have reached more eligible individuals and families last year. We know it reached a near-record high in 2014, the latest year USDA has published rates for.

The policy angle here is partly the agency’s effort to encourage outreach by awarding bonuses to states that achieved the highest — and most improved — participation rates.

But it’s also both state and local efforts to bring eligible households into SNAP just because they’d then have more funds to combat hunger. (House Republicans, as you probably know, would do away with this “incentive” by converting the program to a block grant.)

We should also look to other nutrition assistance programs, including the free and reduced-price schools meals the federal government subsidizes.

They’re obviously a factor in food security rates, since parents have more to spend on the meals and snacks they alone can provide if their children get fed for free — or for very little — when school’s in session.

The Center cites one relevant policy change that can help account for last year’s lower family food insecurity and hunger rates — community eligibility.

It’s an option high-poverty schools have to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all their students. More low-income children will get them because it eliminates applications barriers and the stigma children often feel when they know their peers will know they’re poor or nearly so.

The option became available to schools nationwide for the first time in 2014-15. More than 14,200 adopted it then. An additional 4,000 or so joined them the following school year, the first half of which falls within the USDA survey time frame.

So parents of more than 8.5 million children could have saved the costs of ten meals a week for each for roughly half the year. These were not all low-income parents, but at least 40% probably were.

Schools that adopt community eligibility must serve free breakfasts, as well as lunches. But some schools have long served them — never as many as lunches, but the gap is closing. In 2014-15, more than 91% of schools that served lunches also served breakfasts.

Well over 11.6 million low-income children got them on an average day — about 474,600 more than during the prior school year. The Food Research and Action Center, the source of these figures, attributes the increase in part to community eligibility.

A separate, though possibly related reason is that more schools have begun serving breakfasts in the classroom or some other way that doesn’t require children to eat in the cafeteria before the school day begins.

They’ve thus eliminated both the logistical barrier posed by having to get kids to school extra early and the stigma kids may feel because it’s obvious their parents haven’t fed them.

Four states and the District of Columbia had passed laws requiring at least their high-poverty schools to serve “breakfast after the bell” by 2015.

So here’s another way that public policies have played a role in reducing food insecurity and out-in-out hunger for both children and their parents. Still a lot more to do, but we know a lot about what that should be.

More than I’ve covered here, but we know quite a lot about the rest too.