New Report Finds Hunger Nationwide–And Rampant Among DC Families With Children

January 28, 2010

Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues a report on food (in)security in the U.S. It tells us some important things. But it’s limited. The data are quite old by the time the report is issued. And the number of households surveyed is too small to permit much by way of reliable geographic breakouts.

Now the Food Research and Action Center has issued a first-ever detailed, up-to-date report on food hardship “in every corner of the U.S.” Food hardship here is roughly equivalent to USDA’s food insecurity–specifically, an affirmative response to the question, “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

The FRAC data come from a survey Gallop has been conducting every day since the beginning of January 2008. They’re current as of December 2009. And they reflect responses by more than 530,000 people (12 times as many as in the survey used for USDA’s latest report).

With such a large data set, FRAC has been able to provide reasonably reliable food hardship rates by calendar quarter, state, major metropolitan statistical area and Congressional district. As a political matter, the last may be most important because it puts the problem of hunger into the home base of virtually every member of Congress.

Here are some big-picture findings:

  • Food hardship rose in 2008–from 16.3% in the first quarter to 19.5% in the fourth quarter.* Of course, the big uptick here is linked to the rising unemployment rate. But the large increase in “food at home” prices was also a factor.
  • The food hardship rate declined somewhat in 2009, ending in the fourth quarter at 18.5%. FRAC attributes this in part to a drop in “food at home” prices, but mostly to other factors that offset the still-rising unemployment rate–increases in food stamp benefits, other provisions in the economic recovery act, policy changes that broadened food stamp eligibility and increased participation in all the major federal nutrition programs. In short, mostly the workings of the safety net.
  • Food hardship was a greater problem for households with children than for those without. In 2009, 24.1% of the former experienced food hardship, as compared to 14.9% of the latter.
  • Food hardship was a problem in every state. In 2009, the rate was over 10% in every state, over 15% in 43 states and over 20% in 17 states. For households with children, the 2008-9 rate was over 15% in every state and over 20% in 40 states.
  • Food hardship was also a problem in almost every Congressional district. The 2008-9 food hardship rate was under 10% in only 23 of the country’s 436 Congressional districts and at least 15% in 311 districts.

And what about the District of Columbia?

  • In 2009, the District’s overall food hardship rate was 20.8%–higher than in all but 14 states.
  • Both the District’s food hardship rate and its relative ranking worsened last year. In 2008, the overall rate was 17.6%–lower than all but 20 states.
  • The District had a higher rate of food hardship among families with children than any state–a shocking 40.8%. The highest ranking state was Mississippi, with 33.8%.

I don’t know what to say about figures like these that hasn’t been said before and better. So I’ll borrow from Congressman James McGovern (D-MA), co-chair of the Congressional Hunger Caucus. “Hunger is a political condition.”

We have the wealth to eliminate hunger. We’ve got a host of studies, pilot projects, best practices and proposals that tell us how to go about it. We know (or ought to know) that investments in reducing hunger more than pay for themselves–in lower health care, education and welfare costs and ultimately in greater economic productivity.

But do we have the political will to deal with food hardship now?

President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget proposed $10 billion over 10 years to strengthen the Child Nutrition Act–a down payment on his commitment to ending child hunger by 2015. But we haven’t heard much about this lately–or any hint that the food stamp increase in the economic recovery act should be extended.

The jobs creation bill the House passed will leave what the New York Times calls “a crater in the economy where the job market used to be.” And the Senate is taking its own sweet time with something even smaller.

Here in the District, we see budget cuts that have undermined the delivery of food stamps and other benefits–and possibly more cuts on the horizon. Still no word about when the Income Maintenance Administration will make the Food Stamp Expansion Act a reality.

So I’m not hopeful. But I hope to be proved wrong.

* Both these figures are higher than what USDA reported for food insecure households (14.6%).


Hunger Experts Say the Top Remedy Is Jobs

January 11, 2010

Catching up on things in my files…

A mid-December article in the Washington Post explores “the silent epidemic” of child hunger. Bottom line is that the problem is complex and unlikely to be solved by simply putting more money into food assistance programs.

This took me back to a webinar on the struggle against hunger in America. Anyone who’s been following the news knows the news wasn’t good.

  • Food banks in Feeding America’s network reporting an average of 30% more requests for emergency food assistance since last year.
  • An unprecedented one-year jump in the number of people who are food insecure–from 36.2 million in 2007 to more than 49 million in 2008.
  • Nearly 37.2 million people receiving food stamps in September–almost 15.6% more than in September 2007.
  • Hunger and/or dietary deficiencies among one in four of the children cared for by pediatricians in the Children’s HealthWatch network.

And more …

But, of course, we already knew that many more households are struggling with hunger–and many more children at high risk of life-long consequences. Every new report is a shocker, but not a surprise.

The surprise, for me, was what the panelists said should be done. As you’d expect, they noted needs to improve and expand federal nutrition programs. But their A-number 1 remedy was action to address the jobs crisis.

Putting people back to work will surely reduce food hardship. But just creating jobs won’t be enough. We’ll continue seeing dire figures like those above unless we make sure that those who’ve been hit hardest by the labor market contraction can find living wage jobs–a challenge for many of them even before the recession set in.

School Breakfast Program Feeds Fewer Than Half of DC’s Low-Income Students

December 28, 2009

The latest U. S. Department of Agriculture’s food security report tells us that 16.7 million children live in families who can’t always afford to feed them enough of the right kinds of foods for a healthy, balanced diet. Many of them–and other children as well–start their school day unready to learn because they’re hungry.

In a recent survey for Share Our Strength, 62% of teachers reported that they regularly see children come to school hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat at home. More than 90% said that hungry students are likely to lack focus and/or energy and to under-perform on tests.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Since 1975, the federal government has subsidized in-school breakfasts. As with lunches, children in families at or below 130% of the federal poverty line can get breakfasts for free. Other low-income children can get them at a maximum cost of 30 cents per meal.

The Food Research and Action Center has been tracking low-income children’s participation in the school breakfast program since 1991. It has consistently found far lower participation rates than in the school lunch program. Its state-by-state report for the 2008-9 school year shows that an average of 10.1 million children a day got a free or reduced-price lunch but not a breakfast.

For the last three years, FRAC has also been reporting on school breakfast participation in America’s biggest cities, including the District of Columbia. It’s just issued its latest scorecard.

So how are we doing? Not as badly as some, but not nearly so well as we should be.

  • In 2008-9, 48.4% of D.C. school children who got free or reduced-price lunches also participated in a school breakfast program.
  • This was slightly below the median for the 25 big city systems and a whopping 47.3% below the top-ranking system (Newark, New Jersey).
  • It was 2.7% lower than the District’s 2007-8 participation rate. Only six other big city systems had decreased rates.

What do we make of this? Well, for one thing, the District lost out on more than $1 million in federal nutrition funds–the additional amount it would have gotten if its breakfast program had served just 70% of low-income students who participated in its lunch program. And more than 4,000 children would have had a better chance to thrive and learn.

As I’ve said before, there seem to be lots of reasons school breakfast participation rates are generally low. The District has already addressed some of them by instituting a universal breakfast program, i.e., free breakfasts for all children, regardless of income.

As a next step, DC Hunger Solutions has recommended programs that reach children who can’t get to school in time to eat a regular cafeteria meal before the school bell rings–“grab and go” packages, in-class meals and/or “second chance” breakfasts after the first period. The new FRAC report indicates that some D.C. schools have such programs. Maybe there should be more.

What else should the District be doing? Why are we failing to tap millions of federal dollars that would help about 17,840 more poor and near-poor children start their school days properly fed?

NOTE: Cross-posted on DC Food for All–a forum of “eaters and advocates, growers and wonks … working to bring healthy, sustainable and affordable food to all.”

Let’s Make Health Care Reform Work For Low-Income Children

December 11, 2009

As I wrote awhile ago, the current health care reform bills could leave many low-income children worse off than they are now. The children at risk are some portion of those who are currently enrolled–and others others who should be enrolled–in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Those whose families are poor enough will have a broad range of very low-cost benefits through Medicaid. Not-quite-so-poor children now enrolled in SCHIP will be shifted to the health insurance exchange–immediately under the bill the House passed and in 2013 under the bill the Senate is debating. And that’s where the problems lie.

Plans purchsed through the exchange will have considerably higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs. And neither the House nor the Senate bill requires them to cover all the health services children need.

Moreover, just because the Senate bill would temporarily extend SCHIP doesn’t mean that all eligible children would be covered. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation brief, most of the 8.9 million children without insurance now are eligible for a public health care program. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that SCHIP and Medicaid combined will cover only 5.6 million more children in 2013.

Nor does the current Senate bill mean that children in SCHIP will get adequate health care. The Children’s Defense Fund has called the current system “an unjust lottery of geography”–in part because some states operate SCHIP programs that offer less than the comprehensive screening, prevention, diagnosis and treatment services available under Medicaid.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) has introduced an amendment (#2790) that would address these problems. As his summary indicates, it would:

  • Continue federal funding for SCHIP through 2019.
  • Require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to report on differences between coverage under subsidized plans in the exchange and coverage under SCHIP, thus giving Congress a basis for deciding whether to preserve SCHIP beyond 2019.
  • Require states to offer the same range of services to children in SCHIP as they cover under Medicaid.
  • Provide federal matching funds for all covered services SCHIP children receive instead of giving states a predetermined grant for each year.
  • Prohibit states from reducing income eligibility standards for SCHIP and require them to cover all children up to 250% of the federal poverty line, beginning in 2014.
  • Ensure that SCHIP remains affordable by prohibiting states from increasing charges, except to reflect increases in the median income for low-income families.
  • Provide grants and a significant financial incentive for states to increase outreach and streamline theirĀ  enrollment process.

Voices for America’s Children has a customizable e-mail that those who have Senators can use to support this worthy amendment. We who live in Washington, D.C. can call or e-mail Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, since he will reportedly will incorporate changes he likes into a final manager’s amendment.

The leadership is pushing to get something passed before Christmas. So time is of the essence here.

Thoughts On Home and Homelessness

November 24, 2009

Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a long time know that my husband and I became homeless, in a manner of speaking, in mid-February. I say “in a manner of speaking” because we weren’t evicted but displaced by a fire. So, thanks to insurance, we’ve had a place to stay.

After countless complications, permits and inspections, we’re finally going home. Which has got me thinking again about what it means to not have a home–no place to live that you feel is your own, a center you can come back to for as long as you want.

The definition here captures what I’ve learned first-hand. Being homeless means having no rock-bottom sense of safety and stability. And this is a basic human need.

A new brief by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reminds us of the many lasting effects homelessness has on children. It leads off with the profound destabilizing experience of becoming homeless–the impact of “loss of community, routines, possessions, privacy, and security.”

The report goes on to detail the additional trauma children and their parents can suffer due to shelter living, the stresses of needing to reestablish a home and problems that could have precipitated their homelessness, e.g., acute poverty, parental illness.

Many studies indicate that these have serious, lifelong impacts on children. But another recent report suggests that residential instability itself plays a role, whether children spend time in a shelter or just moving from one temporary housing situation to another. The effects are greatest on very young children.

I wonder whether this doesn’t have something to do with the fact that frequent moves are more destabilizing for them. A young child, after all, doesn’t really understand what’s happening or have an adult grasp of the temporary or the future. It’s just one sudden loss after another. Consider too that the losses can include caregivers and parental attention–even loss of parents themselves.

All of which makes me doubly aware of how fortunate I’ve been–and how skewed our national priorities are when we’ve got a $3 trillion budget and well over 500,000 homeless families.

Low-Income Children Could Be Worse Off After Health Care Reform

November 7, 2009

Last Wednesday, hundreds of concerned citizens answered the Children’s Defense Fund’s call to join a “stroller brigade” to the U.S. Capitol. Other brigades strolled in at least 16 communities across the U.S.

These brigades were to demonstrate grassroots support for “comprehensive, affordable, accessible health care for all children, no matter where they live.” This is by no means an inevitable result of federal health care reform.

CDF warns that the health care reform bills Congress is debating give short shrift to the needs of millions of uninsured and under-insured poor and near-poor children. They could, in fact, leave many worse off than they are now.

CDF and the “champions for children” it’s organized want Congress to do three things.

1. Guarantee all children access to the full range of health benefits they need, i.e., the early and periodic screening, prevention, diagnosis and treatment (EPSPDT) services children can get under Medicaid. There are four related concerns here.

  • Only some children enrolled in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) get comparable benefits because states can offer more limited coverage.
  • Under the bills now pending, children whose families purchase insurance through the newly-created exchange will not be covered for all EPSPDT services.
  • These children will eventually include those enrolled in SCHIP. The bill the House will vote on would sunset the program in 2013. The final Senate bill will probably extend it to 2019. But even before then, SCHIP children will be shifted to the exchange if a state runs out of funds for the program.
  • Premiums and out-of-pocket costs in exchange plans will be higher than what families pay under SCHIP. As a study for First Focus shows, the difference could be as great as 33%.

2. Eliminate the unjust lottery of geography. Here again, the problem is that SCHIP benefits and eligibility vary from state to state. In some states, SCHIP is structured as an expansion of Medicaid, thus ensuring EPSPDT benefits. Other states have separate, more limited programs. Twenty-two states permit enrollment of children up to 300% of the federal poverty line. The eligibility cap in the remainder is lower.

So what CHN wants in the final health care reform package is mandatory coverage under SCHIP for all children under 300% of the FPL, federal funding to ensure states can enroll all eligible children and, I infer, a nationwide benefits standard comparable to EPSPDT. It also wants SCHIP retained until the alternative can be shown to provide coverage at least as good.

3. Address bureaucratic barriers that keep children eligible for Medicaid or SCHIP from getting the care they’re entitled to. CHN says that complex application and enrollment processes and frequent renewal requirements now keep about two-thirds of eligible children out of these programs. It wants Congress to require a simple, streamlined process.

Those of us who didn’t stroll can support CHN’s agenda by signing on to its letter to Members of Congress.

As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson observes, “children–most particularly, children of non-affluent parents–have no clout whatever in the political process.” They depend on us and venerable champions for children like CHN.

Congress Approves Free Suppers For Poor DC Children

October 9, 2009

A piece of good news in the midst of so much doom and gloom. The just-passed final version of the Fiscal Year 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill makes the District of Columbia eligible for federally-subsidized suppers for low-income children in after-school programs.

As I wrote awhile ago, D.C. was added to the eligibility list in the bill the House of Representatives passed. But it was dropped in favor of Wisconsin in the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee–maybe, just maybe because the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Committee represents Wisconsin.

The version the House and Senate agreed to includes both D.C. and Wisconsin, plus Nevada and Connecticut, which was also in the House bill and is, not coincidentally the home state of the chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

In view of the politics here, a lot of credit goes to our non-voting representative in the House and to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which worked hard behind the scenes to get the District’s need for free suppers on the radar screen.

What the Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions says is true not only for D.C. families, but for families nationwide. Parents who are working extra-long or non-traditional hours or struggling to get into (or back into) the workforce need extended after-school care for their children. These children need more than a snack, even if their parents have the time and resources to serve a nutritious evening meal at home. And many don’t.

So, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I hope Congress will go on to consider the unmet needs of poor children in the 37 states that still aren’t eligible for the subsidized supper program.

That’s only part of the unfinished agenda. Congress needs to change the program eligibility requirements because poor children can’t get even a subsidized snack, let alone supper, in an after-school program, except one operated by a school, unless they happen to live in an area where at least 50% of school-age children are poor. That may not be much of a problem in D.C., but it certainly is elsewhere.

And surely Congress should do something about the reimbursement rates too. Hard to see how an after-school program can serve tasty, nutritious suppers when the maximum reimbursement rate is, as for lunches, just $2.85 per meal.