Looking to Low-Income Families for Solutions

January 20, 2015

I first got to know David Henderson when we both wrote from Change.org, which then had lively blogs on poverty and homelessness. Before and since, he’s used his formidable technical and analytic skills to help nonprofits collect and use data to measure outcomes.

That, of course, is what donors want. But David’s main concern has been to help his clients maximize their impact on the causes of poverty and its personal harms.

He recently steered his career in a different direction — for reasons that are, at the very least, thought-provoking.

Basically, he’s rejected our predominant social services system because, he says, it is “based on a misguided paradigm … of providing solutions to distressed ‘clients’ in ‘need’ of answers.” This, he adds, “doesn’t only oversimplify the poor, it plainly gets them wrong.”

The organization he’s joined — the Family Independence Initiative — seeks to learn what families do when they, rather than case managers or other social workers have “control over their paths forward.” And it seeks to learn from them “what works — and what doesn’t.”

Quite a role reversal here. Families set their own goals and decide what actions to take. The FII liaisons, as they’re called, just listen and sometimes ask questions to gather stories and deeper understanding.

Deeper understanding — for the families themselves, as well as FII — comes from online journals they add to monthly. They input information on things like income and savings, education and skills, health, housing and, very importantly, leadership and connections.

“Very importantly” because FII seeks to strengthen relationships participants have with friends and relatives. To this end, participants are responsible for forming groups, which in one way or another, provide mutual support, accountability, advice, resources and the like.

Families get paid a modest amount for sharing information via their online journals — some capital they can invest in their further progress, FII’s founder and CEO explains. The organization in turn develops resources to help families achieve what they themselves have chosen as priorities and to meet needs they have identified.

These resources include an online community that enables participants who’ve initiated actions of various sorts to share successes and how they achieved them — and for other participants to seek advice.

FII will also link participants who’ve started — or want to start — small businesses to lenders it’s partnered with. And it provides support for lending circles, i.e., self-formed groups of people who contribute to and can then take interest-free money out of the pot they’ve all created.

The FII approach isn’t altogether novel. As I’ve mentioned before, pilot projects in developing countries have given cash to some very poor people, who, for the most part, used it to improve their lives — sometimes by starting businesses, developing their skills, building savings and the like, sometimes by paying for basic needs like food, clothing and housing.

But, as we can see from the project evaluations — and in at least some cases, the project designs — the cash-givers had preconceived notions of what the poor people should do (and not) with the money. Reported successes clearly reflect their value judgments.

What FII says it’s doing seems quite different. It’s what’s known, David told me, as demand-driven philanthropy, i.e., investments in what families are already doing to improve their lives and communities.

What will come of FII’s approach remains to be seen. What it will learn also, though one thing it clearly has learned is to refrain from helping families avoid seeming mistakes.

What it learns isn’t an end in itself, however. The organization aspires to “transform stereotypes, beliefs, practices, and policies that undermine families’ efforts to get ahead.” Learning, in other words, has to reach deep into the social services system and the minds of decision-makers that shape it.

A tall order for one relatively small nonprofit. And it’s encountered pushback from professionals, as well as cold shoulders from prospective funders.

But the challenge it poses to the prevalent model, the stories it shares and the data David crunches could provide a needed antidote to programs that in principle and/or practice treat low-income people as lesser beings who don’t know what’s best for them — and won’t do it unless their benefits are at stake.

Message to Congress: “We Can’t ‘Food-Bank’ Our Way Out of Hunger

November 25, 2013

Katy Waldman at Slate interviews Debra, a single mother who lives in the District of Columbia. Her 21-year-old daughter is till living with her and unemployed. The conversation centers on the recent cuts in SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

They used to have meat on the weekends — a festive (and healthful) break from the weekday lunchmeats. But “meat is going to be a huge problem now.”

“The good thing” is that a church will give her a turkey for Thanksgiving. She doesn’t know what else she’ll have on the table. Like as not, one infers, it will come from one of the two local food pantries she visits monthly — Bread for the City and Martha’s Table.

I’d been thinking about the churches and other charitable organizations that make Thanksgiving meals possible for low-income families. And about charitable individuals also, since our local grocery store again has collection carts for customers to put non-perishables in.

Free Thanksgiving meals and fixings are an old tradition. But, of course, the risk of hunger — and hunger itself — aren’t just holiday events.

Millions of people, like Debra, now rely on food pantries for something to put on the table, even though they’re enrolled in SNAP.

Food pantries have reported longer lines, increased needs to ration, even needs to turn people away ever since the recession began. It’s a tad early to know how the recent SNAP cuts have further strained their capacity to meet need. But reports have begun trickling in.

For example, a spokesperson for the Capital Area Food Bank, which helps supply well over 500 pantries and other nonprofits, says, “We see more people call into the food bank for assistance, we see more people come into our partner agencies, and they’re requesting more and more food every day.”

And no wonder when, in the District alone, more than 144,000 residents lost a portion of their SNAP benefits, which were only, on average, $1.50 per meal before.

The cuts in the District amount to a total first-year loss of $15 million. This is far more than our local feeding programs can make up for.

Martha’s Table, for example, has an annual food budget of $1 million, its president Patty Stonesifer says in an op-ed jointly written with D.C. Hunger Solutions Director Alexandra Ashbrook.

The SNAP cuts nationwide will total about $11 billion by 2016. That translates into an estimated 10 million lost meals a day for close to three years — at least 250 million by the time you read this.

There’s obviously no way that churches and other charitable organizations could ramp up to supply so many more meals or the equivalent in groceries.

At this point, all the food they provide to hungry people is only about 6% of what federal nutrition programs provide, says Bread for the World President David Beckmann, a leading anti-hunger voice in the faith-based community.

Well, you know where this is going.

Most members of Congress are home now. And most are probably looking forward to a Thanksgiving feast.

When they return, they’ll have just eight scheduled working days to pass a new Farm Bill before they go back home for an extended holiday season.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas says the negotiators are getting closer to a compromise. “The struggle,” he adds, “is how do you deliver the safety net.” By which he means, how will we provide farm businesses with taxpayer-subsidized protections against losing money.

Most of us, I suppose, thought the real safety net issue was how much more the Farm Bill would cut SNAP.

Negotiators have a real struggle to the bridge the gap between the Senate’s $4 billion cut and House cuts that total $39 billion, plus some unestimated savings achieved by an incentive for states to adopt new work requirements that would shrink their SNAP rolls.

Some Democrats are reportedly leaning toward a $10 billion cut, not counting the potential effects of some policy changes that would be thrown in as sweeteners for House Republicans.

Time was when addressing hunger in America was a bipartisan endeavor, as former Senators Bob Dole and Tom Daschle remind us.

Now the bipartisan deal, should there be one, would, at the very least, make hunger more frequent for people like Debra, who already sometimes skips meals so her daughter can eat.

She’s nevertheless fortunate to live in a community where a large network of faith-based and other nonprofit organizations strive to ensure that low-income — and no-income — people don’t suffer from malnutrition.

That they can do as much as they do is a credit to compassion (in the literal sense) that moves so many well-fed people to donate their services, money and/or in-kind gifts.

But, as Beckmann says, “We can’t ‘food-bank’ our way out of hunger.” Food banks and the programs they help supply have confirmed this in no uncertain terms.

You’d think, by now, Congress would have gotten the message — and had second thoughts about squeezing more money out of SNAP.

Nonprofits Part of the Hunger Solution, But No Substitute for SNAP

September 26, 2013

We’re coming to the end of Hunger Action Month, initiated by Feeding America to build support for ending hunger in our country.

House Republicans celebrated, as I’m sure you know, by voting to deny SNAP (food stamp) benefits to about 3.8 million low-income people.

A few days later and a couple of miles away, the National Cathedral held a hunger forum for its congregants and anyone else who chose to attend or, as I did, watch the live stream on their computer.

One of the speakers, George Jones, spoke briefly about the experience of Bread for the City, where he’s CEO. More people are coming to the organization’s two food pantries, he said. They’re now serving about 5,000 households a month.

We also heard from representatives of smaller, faith-based feeding programs. In the Street Church project, for example, volunteers prepare and serve sandwiches in a downtown park where homeless people gather.

Volunteers in the National Cathedral’s community also prepare sandwiches — these at home — and drop them off, along with fresh fruit for delivery to a mobile soup kitchen operated by Martha’s Table, which also provides bags of groceries to people who’d otherwise go hunger.

Now, we need these projects — and the many others here in the District and in communities nationwide. We would need them even if SNAP benefits were safe, which they aren’t, despite the likelihood that the Senate will reject the harsh, sweeping House cuts.

As I’ve often (too often?) said, SNAP benefits are already too low to cover the monthly costs of reasonably healthful, balanced meals — or in some cases, any meals at all.

We need also to consider that far from everyone eligible for SNAP participates — about one in four, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Lots of reasons for this, as a FRAC research review indicates. Among them is the very low benefit for a single person — currently no more than about $2.19 per meal. Not worth the hassle, some figure — or the stigma, all too often reinforced by checkers and other customers at the grocery store.

For seniors living alone, as most who received SNAP did, the average benefit in 2011 was even lower — $122 a month or roughly $1.34 per meal. This, as I’ve previously noted, helps explain why a Feeding America survey found that a third of all regular pantry clients were 60 or over.

Consider too that not all low-income people in this country are eligible for SNAP. The same law that ended welfare as we knew it established a five-year waiting period for virtually all adult immigrants who came here through proper legal channels.

No benefits ever, of course, for immigrants without the proper papers, though they and their children have the same needs for food as us born-in-America folks.

Resources aren’t the only issue. Access to full-service grocery stores is also often a problem for low-income people — a combination of distance and the need to rely on public transportation.

There are only two supermarkets in the District’s poorest east-of-the-river area served by one of Bread for the City’s pantries, Jones noted.

Put all these problems together with persistently high unemployment rates — recently 14.9% and 22.4% in the District’s two poorest wards.

Add both under-employment and jobs that don’t pay enough to live on and it’s understandable why nearly one in three District households with children didn’t always have enough money for food, according to FRAC’s latest food hardship report.

So it’s heartening that so many nonprofits step into the breach with free meals and/or food to take home. And heartening to know that so many individuals contribute the funds and voluntary services they depend on.

But, as Jones said of his organization’s pantries, they’re “designed to augment food stamps.”

This is a far cry from Congressman Paul Ryan’s claim that the radical cuts he put into the House budget plan — including $135 billion to SNAP — are needed because “the federal government is encroaching on the institutions of civil society … sapping their energy and assuming their role.”

Feeding America reports that the House SNAP cuts, plus the imminent benefits cut for everyone still eligible would result in the loss of about 3.4 billion meals for low-income people in 2014 alone.

This is more than all the meals that its network of food banks distributed through pantries and soup kitchens in the current year.

Here in the District, the Capital Area Food Bank is part of that network. About 250 nonprofits here rely at least in part on the fresh produce and others foods it distributes.

They include Bread for the City, Martha’s Table and others well known in our local community, as well as many that aren’t — except, of course, to the people they feed and the people who make that possible.

So it’s hardly the case that federal safety net programs like SNAP have sapped the energy our civil society institutions — here or nationwide.

It’s rather that they can’t serve as the hunger safety net for the millions of low-income children, seniors, people with disabilities, workers and those who’d work if a job were available who now rely on SNAP to keep food on the table — at least most of the time.

And they’re the first to say that.

Charitable Deduction a Tough Issue for Tax Reform

July 3, 2013

We’re all for tax reform. We’re all for closing loopholes. That, so far as I can tell, is where the consensus ends.

As you undoubtedly know, Republicans and Democrats sharply divide on what potential revenues gained from loophole-closing and the like should be used for.

Republicans want them used to offset the costs of reducing tax rates, thus making tax reform revenue neutral. In other words, the reform package they have in mind would neither increase the deficit nor raise more revenues.

Democrats, by and large, want a package that would, among other things, raise more revenues from “those who can most afford it,” as Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray puts it.

Trouble is that there’s only so much to be gained from tax code changes narrowly targeted to those “at the top,” whom the President calls on “to do their fair share.”

The largest tax expenditures, i.e., revenues forfeited through deductions, credits and the like, benefit a broad spectrum of middle-class filers, as well as the wealthy.

One of them, though not the largest, is the deduction for charitable donations. Here we’ve got an interesting divide that crosses ideological lines.

President Obama has consistently proposed capping the value of all deductions at 28% of adjusted gross income, though not for all filers.

The latest iteration would apply to households in the top three tax brackets and would include not only itemized deductions, but some earnings (or the equivalent) that are now excluded from taxation, e.g.,  the value of employer-sponsored health insurance.

The revenues gained would partly pay for ending sequestration while still reducing that bugbear, the deficit.

The cap would make the tax code more progressive because deductions are worth more to filers who earn more.

For example, someone in the 15% bracket who claims $10,000 in deductions saves $1,500. Someone in the reinstated 39.6% bracket saves $2,460 more.

But — and for exactly this reason — many nonprofits and the organizations that represent them have raised holy hell every time the cap has been proposed.

It’s those upper-income taxpayers they rely on for a large portion of their funding. Also on us, who effectively subsidize that portion, but without the chance to choose where it goes.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the very wealthiest households — the infamous top 1% — will account for 38% of the total value of charitable deductions claimed this year or about $15.2 billion.

No one actually knows how the proposed cap would affect charitable donations, though the experts I’ve read all agree that it would put a damper on them because the deduction provides a financial incentive to give.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that it would reduce individual giving by at least 2.2% and perhaps as much as 4.1%.

This, says the Center for Effective Government, translates into a loss of somewhere between $47 billion and $91 billion over 10 years. A reason it’s campaigning against the cap.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities accepts the TPC estimate, but argues that we must also consider increased incentives to give that were created by certain tax provisions in January’s fiscal cliff deal.

These would partly offset the impacts of the cap. So charitable giving would probably drop by 2% or less, it says.

CBPP views the loss as a small price to pay for ending sequestration. Nonprofits that benefit, directly or indirectly, from government grants and contracts will lose far more from further rounds of spending cuts, it says — even as those same cuts increase demands for their services.

The Center for Effective Government isn’t buying this. Nonprofits might suffer as much from reduced charitable giving as from sequestration, it says — some perhaps more.

Besides, its “a false choice” because other tax code changes could more than offset the costs of exempting the charitable deduction from the cap — or even better, converting it to a tax credit, which would make it equally valuable to all taxpayers who donate.

I got started on this issue because nonprofits that depend in part on charitable donations, of course, include those that serve low-income people’s basic needs.

Yet it seems that they’re not the main beneficiaries of taxpayers in the upper income brackets — those who might be inclined to give less if their deductions were capped.

Such organizations could nevertheless lose some funding if Congress caps all deductions. On the other hand, they’ll surely lose funding if it doesn’t replace sequestration with something more sensible.

Doubtful it will do either at this point. But we should expect the tax preference for charitable donations to resurface.

A tough issue, I think. Where do you net out?

Four Candles on My Blog’s Birthday Cake

December 6, 2012

Today is my blog’s fourth birthday. So I’m going to indulge in a few reflections.

Things I’m Grateful For

I’m grateful for the many organizations whose research and advocacy make my posts possible. I’m awed by the quantity and quality of what they produce.

I’m also grateful for the inspiration they provide. Huge challenges. Disappointing results sometimes. Partial victories more often than total wins. So much effort to preserve what’s been won.

I’m sometimes inclined to feel that advocacy is a hopeless labor — forever rolling the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again.

But then I see how the advocates I admire draw strength from their core values and keep on keepin’ on, while always looking for ways to do more and better. I’m uplifted by their unquenchable spirit.

I’m grateful to the issue experts who take time to answer my questions — and sometimes to send me even more information.

They’ve enabled me to avoid blunders and to tackle points I’d otherwise evade, knowing I’d be likely to blunder. Not claiming I’ve made no blunders, however.

I’m very grateful to the organizations that have sort of taken me into the fold, even though I’m just a lone blogger. The feeling that I’m in some manner part of a like-minded community has become a sustaining part of an otherwise rather solitary life.

I’m grateful to the people who read my posts. I do write for you, not for myself.

Lastly, I’m grateful for the blog itself –and not only because it’s a precondition for the other things I’ve named.

For me, the blog provides a discipline for learning. Scads of interesting things I might dip in and out of — and often do. But I’ve got posts to publish on a regular schedule. So I’ve got to fix on an issue and try to get my mind around a manageable piece.

And then follow it because even issues I think I’ve got a handle on keep evolving — or surfacing again in different forms.

I’m by choice the hedgehog who knows many things rather than the fox who knows one thing well.

Thanks to the blog, I know more things than I did four years ago — and feel I’m getting to know some of them closer to well over time.

Things I Hope For

I hope to put a fifth candle on my blog’s cake. By then,  I hope I’ll feel that it’s better than the four year old I’m reflecting on now.

I don’t know quite what “better” should be — except posts that are more interesting and useful for the people who read them.

I’d be extremely grateful for feedback of any sort — now or whenever the spirit moves.

Holiday Gifts To The Givers

December 22, 2011

I’ve given up sending “thing gifts” to my brothers and their families. As I said last year, they’re well enough off to buy what they want — or at least, to buy what they want that I could afford.

For awhile, I sent things they wouldn’t know they wanted. But I knew this was a crapshoot — as would anyone who’d gotten some of the gifts I have. (No, brothers and sisters-in-law, I’m not referring to yours.)

About five years ago, I decided to instead donate in my family’s names to nonprofits whose work means a lot to me. And now, like other last-minute shoppers, I’ve got to choose.

My e-mail box has been full of holiday appeals from nonprofits whose mailing lists I’ve gotten onto in various ways. So all I need to do is click. But for which?

On the one hand, I feel impoverished. There’s no way I could give to all the nonprofits that I know are doing worthy work in this world.

On the other hand, the plethora of choices makes me feel rich — not, of course, monetarily, but in hope. And, frankly, that’s a commodity I need these days.

I’m continually buoyed up by the sheer number of organizations that are addressing the critical needs of low-income people here in the U.S. — as direct service providers, advocates and both.

I’m buoyed up by how they stay buoyed up enough to keep at it. So many dreadful personal situations the service providers encounter every day. So many defeats on so many policy fronts.

And I’m buoyed up when these organizations work together — both through formal coalitions and through linkages formed for some specific cause. I’ve seen these collaborations overcome high odds.

We’ve got networks stretching across the country — and within some states and cities as well. They can — and do — reach out to engage communities most directly affected by the policies we have and might have, for better or worse.

There’s a wealth of energy, compassion, intelligence and just plain true grit in these organizations and the struggling people they represent. I’m constantly impressed by what they do — and how much they do with what are in many cases quite limited resources.

So as I mull over my gift list, I think how the people who staff and volunteer for these organizations are giving every day. And how they are a gift to us all and to me personally.

Because they’re inspiration and a ray of hope in what we all, I think, agree are very difficult times.

Federal Emergency Food Program Helps Feed Hungry DC Area Residents

February 16, 2010

As I recently wrote, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is said to need a supplemental appropriation because it can’t otherwise provide enough food commodities to meet the increasing pressures on food banks.

Still on my learning curve, I contacted Marian Peele, the Director of Agency Relations at the Capital Area Food Bank, to find out what the situation is there.

CAFB is the Feeding America network partner for the greater Washington D.C. area. It uses federal funds channeled through the D.C. and Virginia state governments to purchase TEFAP food commodities. It also gets free TEFAP bonus commodities when they’re available and suitable to its needs.

All told, CAFB distributes about 23 million pounds of food a year. Nearly 14% of this comes through TEFAP. The rest is donated by various food industry sources and food collected by a vast number of organizations and individuals.

CAFB distributes the food it gets to more than 700 partner agencies, i.e., local nonprofits that either prepare and serve them or give them to low-income people to take home. Organizations I’ve written about before, including Bread for the City, Miriam’s Kitchen and So Others Might Eat are all partner agencies and thus, in part, dependent on TEFAP. CAFB also distributes some food directly to local low-income residents.

Peele says that TEFAP foods are “an enormous help to [their] agencies and thus the community members who receive them.” She says they’re often healthier choices than foods donated from other sources, except for the fresh produce CAFB gets from local farmers.

As we know, the recession has vastly increased the number of people needing emergency food assistance. The newspapers are full of stories about people going to food pantries who never sought help before. Feeding America reports that its food bank network is serving one in eight Americans–46% more than in 2006.

Calls to the CAFB Hunger Lifeline, an emergency food referral, have increased 91%. Peele says that partner agencies report increases in food distributions ranging from 85% to 200%. They’re dealing with longer lines, cutting back on portions and still running out of food faster than ever before.

The organizations that are calling for a supplemental appropriation say that it’s needed to avert a drop of 50% or more in the dollar value of this year’s bonus commodity donations. This doesn’t mean that CAFB would receive that much less. But it does show what the food bank may be up against as it tries to keep up with the rising tide of hunger in our nation’s capital.


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