When No News Isn’t Good News: Hunger Edition

September 24, 2015

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the food insecurity rate last year was so little different from the 2013 rate as to be statistically the same — 14%.

That’s about 17.4 million households or a total of 48.1 million people without “consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

There was also no measurable change in what USDA calls the “very low food security rate,” i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes didn’t have enough to eat due to lack of resources, including SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

More than 6.9 million households — 5.6% of all in the U.S. — fell into this category. And in 422,000 of them, children were sometimes hungry, had to skip meals or even went a whole day without anything to eat. No statistically significant change in this rate either.

These figures almost surely understate the actual extent of malnutrition and hunger in this country because the survey they’re based on doesn’t include homeless individuals or families. They’re nonetheless troubling. And the news doesn’t get more cheering as we drill down.

Food Insecurity Over the Longer Term

The nationwide food insecurity rate peaked in 2011, when it was 14.9%. The latest rate is lower than that, by a meaningful amount. But the very low food security rate isn’t.

Looking back over a longer time period, the food insecurity rate in 1999 was 10.1%. It rose every year, but one thereafter until 2012. At the same time, the very low food security rate inched up, though not yearly until 2009.

We see a slight drop then, but a return to the prior rate — 5.7% — the following year. And, as the foregoing indicates, that’s basically where it’s stuck.

Food Costs and SNAP

The typical U.S. household spent $50 a week per person for food last year. This is 17% more than the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits.

But the percent is considerably higher for households with incomes of at least 185% of the federal poverty line, the income eligibility cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

These households spent $52.50 a week per person or 30% more than what the Thrifty Food Plan would allot them. As in the past, these figures are among the many that tells us SNAP benefits are too low.

The more telling, however, are the food insecurity rates among households that received these benefits for the entire 12 months the survey covered.

More than half the households — 51.9% — were food insecure. And well over half of these — 25.5% — had very low food security. Both these rates are somewhat higher than in 2012, the last full year before the premature expiration of the SNAP benefits boost the Recovery Act provided.

Food Insecurity in the District of Columbia

USDA reports three-year averages for states and the District to compensate for the relatively small number of households surveyed each year.

During 2012-14, 13.2% of D.C. households — roughly 41,315 — were food insecure. Of these, 4.9% — about 15,335 — couldn’t always afford to buy enough food of any sort for everyone to have enough to eat.

Both these rates are essentially the same as the national rates for the same time period. And both are essentially the same as the District’s rates during 2009-11. They’re considerably higher, however, than the rates during 2002-4, when they were 10.2% and 2.9%.

The just-released results of the American Community Survey don’t yet include current three-year averages for SNAP. We do, however, learn that 14.4% of District households received SNAP benefits last year. This is somewhat higher than the nationwide rate. But it apparently doesn’t translate into less food insecurity.

Don’t know what to make of all of this beyond the obvious. While SNAP benefits are too low everywhere, they’re especially insufficient in high-cost cities like the District, as research I’ve previous cited shows.

SNAP households are expected to spend 30% of their own money on food. Even that much probably wouldn’t make up for the shortfall between SNAP benefits and the costs of even the unrealistic Thrifty Food Plan.

In any case, a family doesn’t live by food alone. High housing costs and extraordinarily high childcare costs dwarf the estimated amount a family would need for food in the District.

So one has to assume that at least some families spend less on food than what’s supposed to be their share because that’s the only way they can pay the rent — and the only way they can work if they’ve got children who can’t be left to fend for themselves or with a friend of family member.

We’ve got a broad network of nonprofits that provide free food and/or meals to low-income District residents. But as Bread for the World’s president has said, “We can’t ‘food bank’ our way out of hunger.”

The new USDA figures confirm this not only for the District, but elsewhere. Yet we’re a long way from long-advocated increases in SNAP benefits — and a long way as well, it seems, from federal appropriations that would increase the reach of other anti-hunger programs.

In fact, we’ll be lucky if the news from Capitol Hill is no news.



What We Can Hope for (and Not) in the New Child Nutrition Act

August 13, 2015

Lots for Congress to do when members return to the capital. The must-do list includes some measure to keep funds flowing to programs covered by the Child Nutrition Act, since it’s due to expire at the end of September.

Work is already underway to renew the CNA for the usual five years. House members and Senators have introduced more than a dozen bills they hope will shape the final product.

A somewhat selective preview then of what we can hope to see — and what we might see that shouldn’t be hoped for.

More Free Summer Meals

The Food Research and Action Center has, for some years now, tracked low-income school-age children’s participation in summer meal programs.

The latest rate is somewhat better than recent past rates, but still indicates that only about one in six children who received free or reduced-price school lunches in 2013-14 also got free mid-day meals during the peak month for summer meal programs.

Many reasons for this. One is built into the law — a limit on where community-based organizations may serve summer meals without paying the full cost. They’re eligible for reimbursements only if they’re in an area where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

This is especially problematic in rural communities — and probably a growing number of suburbs — where there are pockets of poverty in the midst of better-off areas.

The Summer Meals Act would lower the so-called area eligibility standard to 40%. This is the standard already used to target Title I education funds for low-income and other disadvantaged children, as well as the newer standard that enables schools to serve free meals to all students.

There’d be some grant funds to get more children in rural communities to summer meal sites — or summer meals to them directly via specially-outfitted trucks.

The bill would also eliminate duplicative paperwork, which may deter some nonprofits and public agencies from participating. And it would allow all summer meal sites, instead of only some camps and sites serving primarily migrant children to serve three subsidized meals a day, rather than only two.

Cash-Like Benefits to Fill the Summer Meal Gap

Another bill takes a different, complementary approach to the risk of hunger that increases when summer rolls round.

The Stop Summer Hunger Act would partly compensate low-income parents for the extra they often have to spend on food during the summer months, when they may have to feed their children three meals a day — and like as not do, though perhaps only by skimping on food for themselves.

Families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals would get electronic benefits cards, like the cards now used in SNAP (the food stamp program).

The cards would pay for $150 in foods and beverages next summer — more in later years to reflect increases in the reimbursement rates that partially offset the costs of the meals schools serve.

Better Meals for More Kids in Day Care

The Child and Adult Care Food Program, as its name suggests, subsidizes meals and/or snacks that childcare providers, adult day care centers and certain other programs, e.g., Head Start, serve.

By far and away the largest number fed are children — about 3.5 million a day in Fiscal Year 2013, FRAC reports.

The Access to Healthy Food for Young Children Act would make several changes similar to those proposed in the Summer Meals Act.

It would lower the area eligibility standard for providers who care for children in their homes. It would also enable providers to serve three subsidized meals to children they care for eight hours a day.

And very importantly, it would increase reimbursement rates, which are now so low as to deter participation in the program and/or serving optimally healthful meals and snacks.

Not much of a boost proposed — just 10 cents per meal. But the bill would also provide some additional funding to offset the costs of complying with the updated nutrition standards the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon issue.

Let Them Eat Cake

On the downside, we find dubious concessions to the School Nutrition Association, which purports to represent many millions of the school personnel responsible for planning and supervising the preparation of school meals.

The Association contends, as it has for some time, that the current nutrition standards for subsidized meals are unworkable.

USDA issued them, as the current CNA required, to reflect the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and recommendations from several other expert sources.

Basically, they call for more fruits and veggies, “whole grain rich” bread, pizza crust and the like, low-fat or nonfat milk, less sodium and saturated fats, virtually no added trans fats and age-based limits on calories per week.

Meals that comply cost too much, the School Nutrition Association says. And schools lose more money because kids who can buy their meals elsewhere do — or bring them from home.

Those who do go to the cafeteria won’t eat what’s served. So food — and the federal money that subsidizes it — are wasted.

USDA and others have rebutted most of these arguments, as a FRAC summary indicates. But the Association has tapped favorite themes in the Republicans’ playbook — waste in federal programs and “one-size-fits-all” regulations that cramp needed flexibility.

So we see bills that would prohibit USDA from administering or enforcing major components of the meal standards. The Healthy Meals Flexibility Act would roll back the “whole grain rich” requirement to what it was before the update and free schools from any effort to reduce sodium.

A companion bill would go further toward reducing federal mandates, as its title indicates. It would also effectively eliminate both the maximum calorie limits and the minimum-maximum ranges for grains of any sort, meat and meat alternatives.

I don’t know enough to assess every jot and tittle of the school meal standards. And I don’t doubt that some schools have found compliance challenging.

But the real issue the attacks on the standards raise is whether meals our taxpayer dollars subsidize should reflect the best current scientific judgments on the makeup of a well-balanced diet for children — and thus the foods they’re introduced to and the eating habits they develop.

This is especially critical, I think, for low-income children, whose parents may have neither the financial resources nor the time to serve healthful meals at home or fix them to put into backpacks.

In any event, we’ll soon have new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. So it would seem sensible for Congress to again require USDA to update the standards, so far as necessary.

Far better than to preempt any enforcement of requirements adapted from recommendation of top-flight, disinterested experts.




Low-Income Moms Weigh in on Child Nutrition Programs

July 23, 2015

My, it seems like only yesterday that Congress reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act. Yet here we are again, with hearings, proposals, petitions and behind-closed-doors presentations that will determine the shape and reach of many of our major federal nutrition assistance programs — perhaps before year’s end.

Last week, we heard from experts of a different sort — two low-income mothers who know first-hand how the child nutrition programs work. And though both had thoughts about how they could work better, the big message was that they do work — for moms, as well as kids.

The experts are Witnesses to Hunger — participants in grassroots groups brought together by Professor Mariana Chilton of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities. They bear witness to food insecurity and hunger, but also a range of other poverty-related issues.

They’re given cameras to shoot photos that capture something significant about their lives. They collaborate to create exhibits and choose issues to advocate on.

And they speak truth to power in hearings, meetings and other forums where policymakers who choose to can learn how the decisions they’ve made affect low-income families — and how those they could make would.

The CNA comprises nine federal programs that subsidize meals, snacks and serve-at-home foods and beverages for poor and near-poor children, parents and, in some cases, elderly and/or disabled adults.

The two Witnesses — Quanda and Tianna — focused largely on school meal programs and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

Witnesses collectively, however, have an agenda for the CNA reauthorization that also includes both summer meal programs and a WIC offshoot that enables some participants to get coupons or the equivalent for purchases at farmers’ markets.

Quanda opened the discussion by saying, “I love WIC.” Her first and seemingly foremost reason wasn’t, as we might expect, the supplement that enabled her to afford more than her SNAP (food stamp) benefits cover.

Rather, it was what she learned about “how to eat” so as to nourish her unborn child and why she should breastfeed her — something she says she wouldn’t have done without the education and practical how-to WIC staff provided.

She’s grateful for the supplement too, however. WIC enabled her to resume looking for work, which meant no more breastfeeding — and thus the need for a store-bought substitute. Without WIC formula coupons, she would have had to spend more than half her SNAP benefits just for the cans.

The burden would have been even greater when she learned, thanks to WIC staff, that she would have to buy an alternative to regular milk for her second child because his acute digestive problems were symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Life was still very tough, especially after he was born, and she was trying to care for her family with only their nutrition benefits and cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — probably $618 a month, since she lives in Boston.

“I am single,” Quanda said — not simply because she’s unmarried, but because she “can’t go to anyone.” She has “no mother, grandmother or boyfriend” to turn to. No such source of emotional support. No handed-down wisdom.

At times, she’d lie on her bed crying, tempted to “give up…. Nobody told me how I would feel.” But her caseworker apparently stepped into the breach. “If the programs weren’t in place, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. I use the programs as my village.”

Quanda’s story seems likely to have a happy ending. She’s earned a teaching certificate and has a full-time job in early childhood education. Her children are in school now.

The free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches they get there ensure they have enough of the right kinds of things to eat, even at the end of the month, when her SNAP benefits run short, since they have to cover only dinners — at least, on weekdays when school is in session.

The story could have been quite different. “Hunger and food insecurity are a brain disease,” Chilton told us. During infancy, the brain’s neurons, i.e., its specialized messaging cells, proliferate interconnections exponentially.

But without the needed nutrients, development slows. And what doesn’t happen in early childhood won’t be made up for later.

Not long after I started this blog, I published a post, based in part on a brief by Children’s HealthWatch that summarized what was then the latest scientific evidence of WIC’s effectiveness in promoting the health and development of very young children.

I focused mainly on funding, which is still an issue, and on the need for Congress to require more fruits and vegetables in the package states must use in deciding which specific foods and beverages — and how much of each — they’ll enable parents to buy with their benefits.

The package provides for more more fruits and vegetables now. Witnesses would still like “[m]ore fruits and veggie checks,” i.e., coupons or credits they could use in grocery stores. They want more milk for older children also. And electronic benefits cards in states that still issue coupons.

These are the sorts of specific improvements that people who participate in our safety net programs can best identify.

What struck me so about what the two Witnesses said, however, was their emphasis on the broader child and family health orientation that distinguishes WIC, including their relationships with counselors. The benefits here are only partly reflected in the health data research provides.

The moms clearly want, more than anything, to see their children thrive — emotionally, as well as physically. They want to see them grow into adults who have fulfilling jobs and more financial security than they have had.

Advocacy is part of this. “We tell our stories,” Tianna said, “so our children will not walk in the same steps we do.” This is why they’re speaking out on the CNA programs they know best.

WIC, says Quanda, can help millions of moms like her “create a strong foundation for … [their] kids to break the cycle of poverty.” Seems to me that ought to resonate with policymakers across the political spectrum.





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.




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