Some College Education Not Enough in DC’s Economy

February 5, 2015

As you may have noticed, this recovery that’s suppose to be more than five years old now hasn’t been one of those rising tides that lifts all boats. We’ve had scads of reports, media features and the like showing how more and more income is flowing to the already-rich, leaving the rest with a shrinking share.

A new report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute zeroes in on one angle of this nationwide story — employment and wages in the District of Columbia. It does so mainly by comparing Census data for 2007, just before the recession set in, to comparable data for 2013.

The report’s subtitle tells that “DC’s Economic Recovery Is Not Reaching All Residents.” That’s an understatement. For example:

  • Low-wage workers, i.e., those with earnings in the bottom fifth, actually got paid a bit less per hour in 2013 than in 2007.
  • The unemployment rate for black workers was 6% higher late last summer than in 2007, though the overall unemployment rate in the District was just 2.1% higher.
  • About two and a half times as many black workers were jobless for at least six months in 2013 as in 2007.
  • Higher percents of black and Hispanic workers, especially the former, were working part time, though they wanted full-time jobs.

The big message underlying many of the figures and related graphs is that residents without at least a four-year college degree are no better off than they were before the recession. In some respects, they’re worse off.

We’re used to seeing dismal wage figures and relatively high unemployment rates for workers without a high school diploma or the equivalent. And we’ve surely got them in DCFPI’s report.

But the figures for District residents with some college education, including those with an associate’s degree are an eye-opener. We learn, for example, that:

  • The median hourly wage for the some-college group fell more, in dollars, than the median for workers with no more than a high school diploma.
  • At the same time, the median for residents with at least a four-year college degree increased by $2.00 an hour — roughly the same as what the some-college workers lost.
  • The unemployment rate for the some-college group was close to 15% in 2013. This is nearly three times the rate in 2007 — and only about 4% higher than the rate for residents without a high school diploma.
  • About 22% of the some-college workers were involuntary part-timers, i.e., wanted full-time work, but couldn’t get it.

Yet when DCFPI turns to what needs to be done, it focuses largely on the District’s lowest-wage workers — and those who either can’t get jobs or could, but can’t afford the collateral costs.

Our some-college workers may benefit from most of the recommendations, but only to the extent they’re as disadvantaged in our labor market as workers and potential workers without their formal education credentials.

For example, DCFPI puts in another plug for career pathways that integrate basic literacy and job training programs — not, one hopes, an approach our some-college residents need.

It also recommends that the District take better advantage of federal funds available for job training and related supports, e.g., transportation subsidies, through SNAP  (the food stamp program). This, I take it, means invest more local dollars because the U.S. Department of Agriculture will reimburse half of what’s spent on an approved plan.

Two other recommendations would help ease conflicts between work and family obligations. One would enable a worker to take paid leave in order to care for a new baby or ill family member. Obviously preferable to quitting, getting fired or, in the best of cases, losing wages you and other family members need.

Another recommendation — oft made and still not fully funded — would increase the reimbursement rates the District pays providers that care for children with publicly-funded subsidies.

We know that some providers won’t accept such children and that others limit the number they’ll accept because, in at least some cases, the reimbursements don’t even cover the costs of care.

Some parents who don’t work could. Others could work more. Wouldn’t do a thing for their wage rates or job prospects. But there’d be more income to spend on other needs.

Still another oft-made recommendation could boost earnings for thousands of workers in the District’s growing “hospitality” sector, as well as some others, e.g., hairdressers, the folks who deliver our pizzas. These are workers whom employers can pay as little as $2.77 an hour because they regularly receive tips.

DCFPI suggests a 70% increase in the tip credit wage — borrowing, it seems, from the long-stalled minimum wage bill in Congress. But it also notes that seven states have no tip credit wage at all — a model the District could follow, if policymakers would stand up to the restaurant and hotel industry lobbyists.

Don’t look to me — or, I would guess, other progressives — to argue against any of these recommendations. But, so far as I can see, none of them gets to the heart of the problem DCFPI illuminates.

If you live in the District, you’ll have a tough time getting — and keeping — a job that will pay enough to support a reasonably secure, comfortable lifestyle unless you’ve got at least a four-year college degree.

What our local policymakers can do about this I’m hard put to say. And I’m certainly not faulting DCFPI for teeing up a handful of quite modest recommendations they could adopt right now — or as part of the budget the mayor’s people are already working on.

But I don’t think we should just shrug our shoulders either. An economy that works for only about half the adults in the city isn’t, to borrow from DCFPI, “enabling all residents to succeed.”

 

 

 


Insight Gained From Trying to Contact Social Security

February 2, 2015

My husband Jesse’s death has been a learning experience for me in many ways. One thing I’ve learned is why so many Americans who don’t have principled objections to major federal programs hate “big government” — and how spending cuts can build support for more.

Checklists I’d been sent told me that I should notify the Social Security Administration of Jesse’s death so that it would stop deposits to his bank account. Foreseeing, as I now know I shouldn’t have, some impending fraud claim, I went to the SSA website, thinking I could notify the agency there. Wrong.

So I called the 800 number. Recorded messages telling me things I didn’t need to know, e.g., the new cost of living adjustment, the Medicare Part B premium. Then a lengthy Q&A with an interactive program. Then a message telling me my wait time would be 45 minutes, but that I could get a callback instead. Opted for that. No call.

So called again. Same routine. Had to hang up after close to 45 minutes to take other calls. Try again. Same results. Finally decided what I should do is get an appointment at the nearest SSA office. Can’t do that on the website either. And so …. Well, you know what.

I finally got to a live human being after about 50 minutes. She told me I could schedule a telephonic meeting. The first available appointment was nearly six weeks away. For  me, this is really no big deal. But what if I’d depended on Jesse for financial support and urgently needed the ongoing survivor benefits I’d have been entitled to?

Frustrations like those I experienced are directly traceable to inadequate funding that has put the squeeze on services for many years. SSA simply doesn’t have the budget for anything like the number of staff it needs.

This is also the case for the Internal Revenue Service, which may be able to answer only 43% of taxpayer calls this filing season — and for the lucky minority whose wait times pan out, only to answer the most basic questions.

No answers whatever for people who don’t file by April 15. No more personal help with tax returns for low-income, elderly and disabled filers either. Well, what do you expect when the agency’s budget, in real dollars, is about 17% less than in 2010.

“The way Congress has been handling the funding of the IRS, it’s as if it wants us to hate the agency,” Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary observes. Indeed.

SSA and IRS aren’t the only agencies short-staffed. Blogger Paul Waldman recently posted a pair of charts showing how the federal workforce has shrunk over time. The more telling shows that the number of federal employees per 100,000 residents has dropped by 43% since 1968.

Ramping up automation and other “efficiencies” can do only so much. Only people can, for example, staff the visitors centers in our national parks, protect the wildlife (and the visitors) and plow the snow off the roads so the parks are accessible.

Anyone who knows how angry residents get when streets aren’t swiftly plowed after a snowstorm can imagine how angry some 135,000 people were at our federal government when they learned they couldn’t get into Yellowstone National Park for two weeks after it was scheduled to open.

Chalk this up to budget cuts — including, but not limited to the across-the-board cuts that affected all federal agencies in 2013.

I could run out other examples, but I think the point is clear. The spending-slashers have created a feedback loop. We expect reasonably timely, responsive services, especially when critical needs are at stake.

We’re driven around the bend by faceless bureaucrats, like the administrative law judges who taken an average of 422 days to rule on appeals when claims for disability benefits are denied, as they often are. Others, also faceless who don’t even put veterans needing medical care on a waiting list.

Bodiless, mindless bureaucrats, like what Jesse and I used to call the metal person who put me through the drill before I could get into the queue of calls waiting  at SSA.

Whether such frustrations translate into self-defeating support for further cuts to specific agencies’ budgets isn’t altogether clear.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times, among others, perceives “a political motivation” in the case of SSA — specifically, that conservatives aim to make Social Security “less relevant” to everyday folks so they’ll be more willing to accept an alternative, e.g. private retirement savings accounts.

Maybe. What I’m more confident of is that unduly slow, insufficient and/or messed-up services help persuade Americans that the federal government is too damn big and ought to be retrenched.

That, of course, serves radically-right Congress members well, since they’d like nothing better than to pare off all but a few core functions, leaving the rest to state and local governments, private businesses, civil society organizations and individuals themselves.

Method in what seems the madness of forcing IRS staffing cuts that will cost the federal government at least $2 billion this year alone in taxes dodged or inadvertently not paid.


DC Coalition Calls for Some Spending Increases, But They Could Save Money … and Lives

January 29, 2015

A new mayor in the District of Columbia. New appointments to senior administrative positions. Three new Councilmembers — and two more to come.

Unexpected challenges for them all because the current fiscal year’s budget seems likely to be short about $83.3 million. It could be considerably more if the District decides to, at along last, settle its overtime dispute with the firefighters.

And there’s a bigger potential budget gap for next fiscal year — perhaps $161.3 million, according to the Chief Financial Officer’s latest estimate of the costs of District agency operations.

Into this still-fluid environment comes the Fair Budget Coalition, with its annual recommendations for (what else?) a budget and related policies that are fair to all District residents. “Fair,” as its mission statement says, means policies, including budgets, that “address poverty and human needs.”

As I’ve remarked before, FBC’s recommendations, worthy as they all may be, tend to be difficult to wrap up in a blog post because they’re a compendium of top priorities identified by working groups that focus on diverse issue areas — housing and homelessness, workforce development and income supports, etc.

So, at least for now, just a few observations.

Everything Is Connected To Everything Else

Though FBC offers diverse recommendations, they fit together, as all speakers on the panel the coalition hosted on report release day emphasized.

For example, if you’re homeless, free health care — and prescription drugs — won’t keep you from suffering life-threatening emergencies because it’s hard to follow a doctor’s recommendations when you’re out on the streets. And impossible, of course, to keep medications refrigerated, though you know some won’t be effective if you don’t.

Thus, said panelist Maria Gomez, the founder and CEO of Mary’s Center, “Health care will not help without other investments” — in the immediate case, obviously affordable housing. Perhaps other public benefits also, e.g., nutrition assistance, transportation subsidies.

A Budget Gap Doesn’t Make Spending Recommendations Moot

FBC’s recommendations seem to involve about $45.2 million in additional spending, plus some unspecified amounts, at least one of which would add to the tab. Some of the total could be offset by a pair of tax recommendations, however.

One would make the local income tax system “more progressive,” i.e., shift more of the tax burden to high-earners. The other would raise the property tax rate on “high value” homes and homes that the owners don’t live in for most of the year.

No revenue estimates for these, however — at least, not yet. More importantly, I’m inclined to doubt that the Bowser administration and the Council would revisit tax reform at this point, since the current budget adopts key recommendations that emerged from the Tax Revision Commission’s studies, debates and ultimate compromises.

This doesn’t mean that the District simply can’t afford the spending FBC recommends, budget gap notwithstanding. For one thing, the gap, large as it may seem, is only 2.3% of the projected FY 2016 budget.

For another, it’s far from certain that everything the District now spends money on is the best investment of our taxpayer dollars.

Take, for example, the Film Incentive Fund, beloved by Councilmember Vincent Orange. We’ve got research showing that the tax subsidies and other incentives used to entice TV and movie companies to film in the District don’t even pay for themselves, let alone generate additional revenues.

Nor, according to studies elsewhere, do they create steady, full-time work for residents. Not much work at all, in fact.

Just an example of where one might look for funds to, say, actually improve employment prospects for low-income residents. The modest investment FBC recommends to create career pathways for D.C. adults without basic literacy and math skills probably would.

Connections Have Budget Implications

The Mayor and Council don’t need to short worthwhile programs in order to shore up others because investing more in some yields high returns in savings and/or revenue increases. Here’s a pair of related examples — often cited.

FBC recommends an additional $12 million to expand permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently. Studies in other communities have found that PSH not only prolongs and improves lives, but usually costs less than leaving chronically homeless people on the streets or sheltering them overnight.

Likewise, vouchers that enable homeless and at-risk families to afford market-rate housing and other vouchers that help cover the operating costs of affordable housing not only provide families with a safe, stable place to live — and thus a healthier environment and a secure platform for working or preparing for work.

These indefinite-term vouchers also cost less than a third of what the District spends, per family, on shelter at the notoriously awful DC General — or the hotels that it’s again constrained to use as shelter because there’s no room left at DCG.

No room left because the Department of Human Services can’t move enough families out fast enough to make room for all the newly-homeless families entitled to shelter. While DHS had reportedly achieved a so-called exit rate of 64 families per month, only 37 families exited the emergency shelter system during the last four weeks we’ve got (unpublished) reports on.

More locally-funded housing vouchers, especially the kind families can use in the private market as long as they have to would swiftly free up shelter space and/or keep families from needing it.

Cost-savings include not only shelter, but the collateral costs of harms associated with homelessness, especially for children. These include, but are not limited to health, behavioral and academic problems that can ultimately diminish earning power — and thus tax revenues. More immediate costs — some justified, some perhaps not — include interventions by the child welfare agency.

By these lights, FBC’s recommendation for an additional $10 million in locally-funded housing vouchers, split evenly between the first and second type, makes sense from a fiscal, as well as a moral — or if you prefer, humanitarian — perspective.

 


House GOP Puts Disabled Workers at Needless Risk

January 26, 2015

Seems when minds are made up, they won’t be confused by facts. Consider, for example, Senator (and Presidential-hopeful) Rand Paul (R-KY) on the subject of SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance).

“[W]hen you look like me and hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting your disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club.”

Blogger Steve Benen refutes Paul’s “over half” and the barely-submerged allegation of fraud with hard data from the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General, which, as he says, are basically the same as findings by the Government Accountability Office.

What’s so depressing is that we’ve been round this barn over and over again. Someone — an NPR reporter, for example, or a Fox News talking head — asserts that a lot of SSDI recipients could work if they wanted to, but instead have managed to get disability benefits based on “squishy” diagnoses or out-in-out fraud.

Analysts, advocates and responsible bloggers cite data showing, among other things, how stringent SSDI eligibility standards are, how few recipients can work at all, let alone ever earn enough to support themselves again, and how modest the benefits are — far too low for someone to choose them over gainful work.

Rebecca Vallas, whose post I linked to above, has written substantially the same thing so often I believe she could probably do it in her sleep.

What’s even more depressing is that the House Republican majority has now put SSDI recipients in unnecessary peril, relying, it seems, on the oft-debunked claims.

As I’ve written before, the trust fund that helps pay for SSDI benefits will run out of reserves in 2016. This has long been expected. And it has nothing to do with freeloaders, fraudsters or the difficulties jobless workers have had finding new employment due to the Great Recession.

Instead, the number of SSDI beneficiaries has grown in part because baby boomers are getting to the age where disabilities become more common and in part because more women are working — and working enough — to qualify.

A third factor — ironic in this context — is that Congress raised the eligibility age for full retirement benefits to help stave off a shortfall in the Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund, i.e., the one intended to ensure those benefits get paid in full.

In ordinary times, Congress would simply shift some payroll taxes that go to the OASI trust fund to the DI trust fund. It’s made such shifts 11 times — sometimes in one direction, sometimes the other.

Doing that now to protect disability benefits would have little effect on the OASI trust fund. It would merely run out of reserves one year earlier, while the DI trust fund would have enough to pay full benefits until the same year — this assuming Congress adopted the Social Security actuaries’ solvency scheme.

None of this matters a whit to Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY), who cosponsored a change in the House rules that effectively prevents any such shoring up of what he calls “a failing federal program.” You see how these unfounded attacks take hold in receptive minds?

No one, I think, questions the need to ensure that the OASI trust fund doesn’t run dry in about 20 years. But the long-term solution for both trust funds, which Reed claims he wants to force, will surely not emerge as law before 2016.

So the House rule, in effect, sets the stage for SSDI benefit cuts estimated at 19% in less than two years. These benefits now average $1,165 a month — less than $200 above the poverty level for a one-person household. Benefits for disabled workers’ spouses and children are far less.

Not surprising then that 44% of younger SSDI recipients, i.e., those 31-49 years old, are poor or near-poor, mostly the former. These are hardly people who can afford to lose close to a fifth of what’s probably their only source of cash income. And they’re many years away from eligibility for retirement benefits — even the reduced benefits they could get at 62.

Monique Morrissey at the Economic Policy Institute views the House rule as “largely symbolic,” since a simple majority can overturn it. And indeed it may if the benefit cuts become an immediate reality — in an election year too, she adds.

But in the meantime, the Republicans have leverage for any of a range of Social Security “reforms.” Morrissey notes recent references to such old warhorses as raising the retirement age (again), replacing social insurance altogether with private investment accounts and/or further means testing — perhaps a phase-out to zero for high-income seniors.

Will seniors, workers who hope they’ll live to be and organizations representing them take kindly to any of these? Faced with the possibilities, will they be told that the only alternative is to keep those other folks from draining the trust fund, as Morrissey predicts?

We’ve already got framing that pits the old against the young. Last thing we need is a spin-off into a conflict between the legitimate needs of seniors and those of younger people with severe disabilities.

And as I, joining many others, have said, it’s wholly unnecessary.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, I came, somewhat belatedly, upon a post by Josh Marshall, the top dog at Talking Points Memo. He foresees the sort of conflict I refer to and calls it a deliberate “plan to set different classes of Social Security recipients against each other in a zero sum for scarce dollars when in fact the scarcity is manufactured.”


What Good Is Health Insurance If You Can’t See a Doctor?

January 22, 2015

I’ve already said my piece (for now) about why everyone needs comprehensive, affordable health insurance. But that’s not the end of the story for the more than 68.5 million low-income people now enrolled in Medicaid. They’ve got to find doctors who will treat them.

This may become even more difficult than it’s been in the past — and for the same reason it’s been difficult. Medicaid doesn’t pay enough. Or at least, that’s what doctors say.

As The New York Times has reported, Congress didn’t renew a now-expired provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires state Medicaid programs to pay qualifying physicians at the same rate Medicare does when they provide primary care.

Like the now-optional Medicaid expansion provision, the Medicaid parity provision has been wholly paid for by the federal government. In other words, federal funds have made up the difference between what state Medicaid programs were paying and what they had to pay because of the ACA.

The two provisions are closely related because having more low-income people enrolled in Medicaid could otherwise make it more difficult for them to get preventive and various other outpatient services when they need them — or indeed, at all.

Before the parity provision because effective, in 2013, only two states reimbursed for the covered services at the Medicare rate or higher. The shortfall in all but 11 of the rest was at least 25%, but so much higher in many that the study I’m linking to estimated the nationwide average fee boost at 73%.

As of last October, only 15 states had said they’d use their own funds to preserve, at least partially, the so-called fee bump. Twenty-two and the District of Columbia said they definitely wouldn’t, in response to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey. Only one of them — North Dakota — had previously paid more than the fee bump required.

The Center for Health Care Strategies reports, based on we don’t know what, that six states and the District “have taken it upon themselves to extend the [parity] policy on their own.” If accurate, a far larger number of Medicaid beneficiaries could wind up with health insurance that means little or nothing if they need primary care. And who doesn’t?

We don’t for sure what will happen if Congress continues to sit on its hands. We do, however, have some indications.

A survey conducted in 2011 found that nearly a third of doctors didn’t intend to accept any new Medicaid patients. Higher percents would accept new patients with private insurance or Medicare. So it wasn’t that they were all fully booked.

A deeper dive discovered that higher percents of doctors would accept new Medicaid patients in states that paid higher reimbursement rates — and conversely. Which looks like bad news for Medicaid enrollees who don’t already have — or need to change — primary care providers in a lot of states that will revert to their prior rates.

A 10-state audit conducted during the months immediately before and after the fee bump officially kicked in found that only about 58% of Medicaid patients could get an appointment with a primary care physician, though 84.7% of privately-insured patients could.

On the other hand, an Urban Institute analysis of other survey results found that only a small fraction of working-age adults who’d had Medicaid for at least a year couldn’t get an appointment — or get one soon enough.

So, as Martha Heberlein at The Children’s Health Blog observes, the access problems seem pretty well limited to new enrollees — some of them probably folks who’d gained coverage because their states expanded Medicaid.

Some doctors have said they began accepting Medicaid patients — or accepting more — because of the fee bump. A recent Urban Institute report tells us that we don’t yet have good data on whether many have done any such thing.

By the time we do, the horse may be out of the barn. And as the law stands now, it’s unclear whether either primary care physicians or Medicaid beneficiaries who can’t get needed treatment because states won’t pay enough can even get a hearing in a federal court. The U.S. Department of Justice has argued that the former can’t.

Meanwhile, a ruling that will almost surely provoke an appeal held Florida accountable for failing to ensure that children in Medicaid receive the medical and dental care they’re entitled to. Low reimbursement rates are “by far the most important factor,” the court said.

I personally find it hard to believe that rate cuts averaging nearly 43% — and over 50% in four states, including populous California and New York — will have no effect on whether Medicaid beneficiaries can get primary care when they need it.

And they’ll have suffered harms that can’t be undone — even if, as seems doubtful, the Supreme Court ultimately results in their favor.

 

 

 


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.


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?

 


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