How States Can Ease the Budget Crunch as Poor Families’ Incomes Rise

May 1, 2014

My last post summarized some policy changes Children’s HealthWatch advocates to avert losses of SNAP (food stamp) benefits before families are in good enough financial shape to make up the difference.

These are all changes Congress would have to authorize. Lots of luck there.

But as with the minimum wage, states can act when Congress won’t. CHW has some recommendations for them — and might have had another if it had finished its report after Congress passed the new Farm Bill.

Happily, several of CHW’s recommendations will be irrelevant to most states because their policies already make SNAP benefits available to households that aren’t quite so poor as the standard federal rules require.

Unhappily, states that haven’t probably won’t — at least so long as right-wingers control the policymaking apparatus. Witness how some are foregoing waivers that would preserve benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents.

Here nevertheless are CHW’s policy solutions for states.

One is broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP — a policy already in place in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

With this option, states can raise the gross income cut-off to 200% of the federal poverty line, thus opening the door to more families whose deductions, e.g., housing, childcare costs, would bring their net income below the FPL. Nothing states can do about the net income cut-off.

States can also lift or altogether eliminate the standard $2,000 limit on “countable” assets, e.g., money in the bank, all but $4,650 of the value of a car.

Here again, CHW is more or less preaching to the choir, since only a few states still impose the standard asset test. And 35, plus the District have none at all.

Or perhaps the sermon was indirectly to House Republicans, who wanted the new Farm Bill to end broad-based categorical eligibility — and with it, states’ flexibility on asset tests.

A last recommendation would keep families from going over the SNAP cliff due to temporary income increases, e.g., occasional spurts in work hours, a lone child support check.

States can require recipients to recertify, i.e., prove they’re still eligible, yearly, instead of at the minimum four-month intervals. Some states and the District already do.

They can also, CHW says, smooth the “peaks and valleys” by averaging income over several months, rather than the prior four weeks.

Either or both of these would eliminate the off-again-on-again-experience that Witness to Hunger Tianna Gaines-Turner, among others, has complained of — and to some extent, the food insecurity they suffer because of the time lag between income dips and SNAP renewals.

Now, as I mentioned, states can do one thing CHW didn’t advocate due to timing. They can prevent the benefits cuts House Republicans got into the Farm Bill by giving SNAP households a somewhat larger LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit.

The LIHEAP benefit can qualify some eligible households for a larger SNAP benefit than they’d otherwise receive. This, in a small way, would mitigate the much larger problem — benefits that are altogether insufficient to cover the costs of a reasonably healthful diet, even before they’re reduced due to income increases.

Eight states have thus far said they’d raise their LIHEAP benefits to the new $20 per year threshold. The District is likely to do the same, since the boost is in the Mayor’s proposed budget — and not controversial, so far as we can tell.

The move certainly is controversial in Congress. House Speaker John Boehner has called it “fraud,” though it’s nothing of the sort. Four House committee chairman have demanded to know what the U.S. Health and Human Services Department intends to do about it.

However this plays out, SNAP benefits still leave a very large number of people at risk of hunger, as Feeding America’s new Map the Meal Gap report suggests.

Not much more states can do about this either. The average nationwide cost of a meal is about $1.00 higher than the maximum per meal SNAP benefit for a four-person family. The gap in the District is closer to $2.00 — and presumably similar in other high-cost cities.

States can, however, minimize the number of people for whom hunger is an everyday experience — through better SNAP outreach, for example, and cross-linked benefits processing.

And to return to where I started, they can make it easier for families who’ve inched up the income scale to keep food on the table without coming up short on the rent.

 

 


Of Poverty Traps and Benefits Cliffs

April 28, 2014

Congressman Paul Ryan, as we know, views safety net programs as a “poverty trap” because they’re means-tested.

“The federal government effectively discourages … [poor families] from making more money, his War on Poverty report says, because they’ll lose benefits if they do — and pay higher taxes as well.

Whether these prospects actually discourage work is debatable — and at the very least, contingent on many variables. The loss of benefits isn’t. Progressives and conservatives alike have commented on the so-called “cliff effect” — to different ends, as you might imagine.

I’ve been puzzling over policy solutions because cliffs or something very like seem inherent in means-tested programs. And to some extent, they are.

But that doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders — or view the only solution as “universal programs” akin to Medicare, as Roger Senserrich at the Connecticut Association for Human Services apparently does.

A recent report by Children’s HealthWatch shows that we could make progress by looking carefully at the real-world causes and effects of cliffs.

The report focuses on SNAP (the food stamp program) and, as one might expect, effects on children’s health when families lose all or a portion of their benefits due to income increases.

The distinction here indicates that SNAP is already structured to create a downward slope, rather than what the word “cliff” brings to mind. Benefits nevertheless dwindle — and eventually disappear — as income rises.

Families can be hit with a double or triple whammy because other safety net and work support programs are also means-tested. A Witness to Hunger, for example, worked overtime for a month, “and they just cut me off food stamps, and they cut my kids’ medical insurance off.”

This may be one reason that income increases are often not enough to compensate for lost SNAP benefits, as results of a CHW survey show.

For example, young children in families who’d altogether lost their benefits were 78% more likely to be food insecure than those in families who’d consistently received them.

For those in families whose benefits had been reduced, the likelihood was 55% greater. And caregivers were 30% more likely not to seek health care for themselves or another family member because they felt they couldn’t afford it.

The CHW report is entitled Punishing Hard Work, though not only wage increases can send families over the cliff.

They can also lose SNAP benefits when a disabled child starts receiving Supplemental Security Income, for example, or when an absent parent starts paying child support. In either case, children should be better off, but may not be.

CHW advocates several federal policy solutions to moderate the cliff effect.

One reflects a recommendation the Food Research and Action Center has made for many years. Use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Low-Cost Food Plan instead of the Thrifty Food Plan as the basis for determining maximum SNAP benefits.

As FRAC has explained — and the Institute of Medicine confirmed — the TFP is unrealistic in various ways. And it understates the costs of foods in the market baskets used to set benefit levels, as CHW itself has shown. Even more so the costs of foods that would make up a healthful diet.

A shift to the Low-Cost Food Plan wouldn’t affect the maximum income threshold, but it would leave families with larger benefits during the tapering-off period.

Two other recommendations address permissible deductions in gross household income. Both would increase the likelihood of a net income below the poverty line — the eligibility cut-off for SNAP.

One would eliminate the cap on deductible housing and utility costs — just $478 a month for most families.

The other would expand the current medical expenses deduction, which is now available only to elderly family members and those who receive disability benefits. Yet families can incur out-of-pocket healthcare costs for other members, even if they’re covered by Medicaid.

These costs often increase with income, as families move to private health insurance plans, as CHW observes. So expanding the medical expense deduction would help preserve one benefit as another shrank.

This is one example of why policymakers should “look across programs to determine … unintended consequences related to increasing family income.”

CHW looks to the Affordable Care Act as a potential vehicle, since it gives states an opportunity to create linkages between healthcare subsidies and other federal benefits.

Well, we know what Congressman Ryan thinks of the ACA. Another “poverty trap,” he calls it.

But if he were really concerned about encouraging people to “begin … getting the dignity of work, rising [sic] their income,” etc., he’d be focusing on the kinds of solutions CHW advocates instead of trying to gut programs like SNAP.

 


Congressman Paul Ryan Previews His Anti-Poverty Agenda

January 21, 2014

Congressman Paul Ryan wants to rebrand himself as a big thinker on poverty issues — and show a skeptical American public that the Republican party truly cares about low-income people.

He’s promised a comprehensive anti-poverty agenda to replace the efforts launched with President Johnson’s War on Poverty, to which he gives “a failing grade.”

He’s been visiting projects in inner-city neighborhoods, accompanied by Robert Woodson, the conservative founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. He’s been talking with experts at like-minded think tanks.

The agenda is yet to come. But we got something of a preview last week when he spoke at the Brookings Institution’s Social Mobility Summit.

Ryan said he “could already hear howls of protest from certain corners.” So I’ll refrain, as best I can, and try to summarize what seem to be major planks of the framework for his agenda-in-process.

Poverty is not just deprivation, but “a form of isolation.” This is Ryan’s major take on poverty in America. He goes at it from various angles — all linked to adverse government impacts.

On the one hand, “taxes take people out of the workforce” because employers would hire more people if their taxes were lower and people would “work that extra hour.” These people, one notes, are in the workforce.

On the other hand, government programs are partly responsible for cutting poor people off from education, work and family. Here Ryan is borrowing from Brookings research that’s become a well-worn conservative recipe for avoiding poverty — finish high school, get a full-time job, marry, then (and only then) have children.

But while the recipe comes close to blaming poor people for irresponsible choices, Ryan blames the federal government. It’s “walling them up in a massive quarantine,” he says.

Government anti-poverty programs create a “poverty trap.” We have a “hodgepodge” of programs created to solve different problems at different times, Ryan observes.

And they create disincentives to earning more, he says, because they result in “high marginal tax rates” — economist-speak for what a household loses in benefits, as well as the higher taxes it pays when its income increases.

The result of income cut-offs for benefits is also sometimes referred to as the “cliff effect” — a problem that’s getting attention from experts across the political spectrum.

Some government programs mitigate the cliff effect. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, phases out rather than abruptly ending. Ryan likes this. The health insurance subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act also phase out. Well, we know what Ryan thinks of the ACA.

Whether, as he says, the high marginal tax rates discourage work is a more complex issue than he acknowledges.

Economist Eugene Steuerle, whom he cites, told interested House subcommittees that studies have produced “mixed and ambiguous” results, but that he believes the extra income often outweighs the tax effect. Indeed, “some people may work more to generate the same net income.”

A better poverty plan would reflect two principles — simplicity and standards. Simplicity means “consolidation,” i.e., block-granting of some sort.

Ryan is intrigued by the UK’s new Universal Credit, which will replace six benefits for low-income working-age people with a single monthly cash payment and also smooth out the cliff. It’s going through “a rough patch,” he acknowledges, apparently referring to technical rollout problems.

It’s also already subject to what the Guardian calls “stealth cuts,” i.e., a three-year freeze on the amount recipients can earn before their credit starts phasing out. But it’s unfair, at this point, to say that’s why Ryan’s interested.

On the other hand, we’ve got his proposed block grants for SNAP and Medicaid, which make it hard to believe that his evolving plans “have nothing to do with a line on a spreadsheet,” as he claims.

Standards refer to work requirements, which Ryan apparently believes lead to work — “the shortest route back into society.” Also, I think, to time limits, since federal assistance should be an “onramp — a quick drive back into the hustle and bustle of life.” Note the isolation theme again.

The model Ryan likes — wouldn’t you know it? — is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As Republicans often do, he cites results — not wholly attributable to TANF — from the late 1990s. Caseloads shrank as more welfare mothers entered the workforce. The child poverty rate declined.

But single-mother employment rates have since dropped. And single mothers who were working in 2011 earned, on average, a bit over $400 a week. The child poverty rate is higher than it was in 2000.

The most significant lasting outcome of welfare “reform” is the caseload cut — from 68% of poor families with children when it was enacted to 27% in 2010.

Only local communities can solve the problem. This isn’t a new message. I remarked on it when the House Budget Committee, which Ryan chairs, issued its latest annual plan.

Ryan made the implications clearer, however. Government, he said, has “crowded out civil society.” It’s told people that poverty isn’t their problem — and by implication, we’ve believed it.

This is a curious view of what goes on in communities today. We have scads of faith-based and other nonprofits that provide food, shelter, clothing, training, health care and more to people in need.

They depend in part on donations — in both time and money — from people who quite clearly believe that poverty is their problem. The organizations are also, in some cases, the way that government anti-poverty funds are translated into services.

And they’re the source of new solutions. The Housing First model for addressing chronic homelessness is an example — though not, one I think, that conforms to Ryan’s standards.

Ryan says that the only way to solve the problem of poverty is “face to face.” If this means that he will not only meet with, but learn from the people who’d be affected by his plan-in-the-making, then it may be a whole lot different from what he previewed last week.

I’ll reserve further howls till we see it.