SNAP Reform a Key Action Against Hunger

September 8, 2016

September is Hunger Action Month — an annual campaign Feeding America launched in 2008 to get us all involved in advocacy, volunteering and other actions against hunger in our communities. That, as you know, was at the outset of the Great Recession.

It’s supposedly far behind us, but more people are hungry than shortly before it began. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported that significantly fewer people lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough of the right kinds of foods for “an active healthy lifestyle.”

Yet its survey found over 42.2 million of them — roughly 6 million more than in 2007. About 2.7  million more — 14.6 million in all — had “very low food security,” i.e., lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough of anything.

More than half the food insecure people lived in households that received SNAP (food stamp) benefits for the entire year. And well over 21% had very low food security.

I’ve used past food insecurity figures, as well as other evidence to hammer on the need to increase SNAP benefits. I’d like to recognize this Hunger Action month differently. So I’ll share a personal discovery as a lead into gleanings from a new policy brief.

Since Jesse died, I’ve tried to keep track of what I spend on food — just curious to know how much less than when our budget had to cover meals and snacks for both of us. Then I wondered how that compared to what I could buy if I depended on SNAP benefits.

I found I’m spending, on average, about twice the maximum I could receive. I find this quite remarkable.

I cook virtually everything that needs cooking — mostly from scratch. I don’t eat beef or pork any more. I don’t buy pricey fish or seafood, much as I’d like to. None of the priciest fruits and vegetables either. No sodas or sweet munchies now that I can keep such temptations out of the house without depriving anyone else.

Don’t mean to bore you with the details of my diet. But they’re relevant to my discovery in several ways addressed by the aforementioned brief and its proposals for “modernizing” SNAP.

The author, Professor James Ziliak, focuses on the food plan used to set SNAP benefit — aptly named the Thrifty Food Plan because it’s even cheaper than the lowest-cost plan USDA has developed for the rest of us.

The TFP assumes that SNAP households will fix their meals from scratch — mainly raw ingredients, though not entirely. Families aren’t expected to bake their own bread, for example. And some recipes USDA has published include canned beans, store-bought tomato sauce and the like.

Preparing TFP meals nevertheless requires an estimated 13 hours a week — or perhaps 16 — according to different studies Ziliak cites. Neither time estimate includes getting the groceries or cleaning up after cooking and eating.

Ziliak traces the prep time to the foods in the TFP “market basket.” They’ve changed over time, for two inter-related reasons. One is that federal law has required USDA to adjust the TFP in light of new Dietary Guidelines for Americans — the federal government’s recommendations for a well-balanced diet.

The other is that USDA uses a model that keeps the real-dollar cost of the plan the same as it was when the TFP replaced a very cheap, short-term plan in 1975. The result is a market basket increasingly weighted toward very low-cost foods — bought in bulk or the equivalent.

Hence the unspoken from-scratch assumption. That’s unrealistic for many households, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council concluded — and not only because of the time involved.

I’ve already summarized on other reasons. So I’ll confine myself here to one that’s a core concern of the modernizing proposal — the “geographic variability of food prices.”

Basically, those low-cost foods in the market basket aren’t always as cheap as the TFP assumes because USDA prices them based on the CPI-U — the consumer price index most federal programs use for inflation adjustments.

The index is for urban consumers nationwide. But, as we all know, food costs a whole lot more in some metro areas than others. Using a fairly new database, Ziliak maps the differences between actual TFP market basket costs and the national average in 2010.

In parts of the country, including the District of Columbia, they were as much as 21% higher than average. In-depth studies in a couple of cities have found even great gaps between SNAP benefits and market basket costs.

Ziliak’s proposal would have SNAP benefits immediately increased by 20%. The boost derives from what he calls the “time deficit,” i.e., the difference between the food prep time the TFP requires and what someone (or ones) in SNAP households probably spend.

It would thus eliminate or at least reduce a related deficit — the extra money many of them spend to put food on the table because they don’t have that much prep time.

USDA would then make two changes in the model it uses to calculate the market basket cost it uses for benefits. It would introduce geographic price adjustments, using any one of several already available sources.

It would also change the so-called reference household it uses. That’s now a two-adult household, with two children, the elder somewhere between six and nine years old. Ziliak wants the elder to become a teenage boy. His food needs would presumably drive another across-the-board increase.

Lastly, USDA would conduct research aimed at improving the household food purchasing data it uses to create the market baskets — and, as you might expect, actual food procurement, prep and cleanup time.

The reforms would, of course, reduce food insecurity. They would also, Ziliak argues, reduce poverty, especially for very low-income households. (We’d see the impact if countable income included the value of SNAP benefits, as it already does in the Census Bureau’s better poverty measure analyses.)

The benefits boosts would lead SNAP households to eat more healthfully too, Ziliak says. He borrows here from a recent study for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It assumes a $30 per month increase in SNAP benefits — roughly the same 20% Ziliak recommends.

We’ve had ample evidence of problems with the TFP for a long time — and other proposed fixes. I’ve focused on Ziliak’s because it pulls in a lot of the recent research and makes a persuasive case for reforms that USDA could readily undertake — if Congress headed the call to action on hunger.

Big if, I know.



Hunger Costs America Well Over $160 Billion a Year

November 30, 2015

Hunger costs our country $160 billion a year, Bread for the World reports. That’s more than one and a half times what the federal government spent on all domestic food assistance programs last fiscal year.

And the estimate is very conservative because it reflects only what the analysts could glean from academic studies of the impacts of hunger and food insecurity on health and related costs.

These include health care, of course, but also lost work time due to personal illness or the need to care for a sick family member.

The report, though not the headline figure also includes other indirect costs, i.e., for special education in public schools and dropouts after students had to be absent too much and/or repeat a grade.

Folding these in increases the hunger cost to nearly $179 billion. And as the online intro to the report says, that’s still only partial because we don’t have the research to quantify all relevant costs.

It cites the costs of forgoing prescribed medications — or skipping doses — so as to have more money for food. Also missing from the estimates, it says, are various other health-related “byproducts” of hunger.

These include overweight and obesity, some forms of cancer, deficiencies in micronutrients like iron, calcium and the familiar vitamins, potentially preventable returns to hospitals and mental health problems, though some of these are factored in.

The new study borrows from and updates a similar study conducted in 2010. One would expect high hunger-related costs then, what with so many people out of work and perilously short on money — a problem even for those with temporarily-boosted SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

As you know, the official unemployment rate has dropped. So has the estimate of what it would be if all working-age jobless adults were counted.

But hunger-related health costs have continued to rise. This is especially notable because the prior “hunger bill” included the costs of charitable feeding programs, while the Bread for the World study didn’t.

I’m never comfortable with putting a price tag on the harms deprivation causes. But costs do make for good headlines and may grab the attention of policymakers, especially when they imply potential savings.

It’s still disturbing to see costs attributed to severe, possibly chronic health problems — and to suicide, the third largest item in the latest cost estimate.

How can we put a dollar figure on the suffering of people who did away with themselves or on the grief, guilt and other often devastating emotions of survivors? Or the pangs of accommodating holes in the fabric of their everyday lives?

The leaders of Bread for the World undoubtedly have similar reservations. The organization identifies itself as a “collective Christian voice,” advocating for a world without hunger.

Helping us recognize the shockingly high health costs of hunger and malnutrition may stir us to advocacy and give us ammunition. It may perhaps even change some of our policymakers’ perspectives.

But ensuring that everyone in this country has enough healthful food to eat every day is fundamentally a moral call. We all feel this, I think, whether we affiliate with a religious faith or not.

Yet we’ve got about 48 million people here who at the very least may go hungry — and roughly 17.2 million who at least sometimes do.

Apologies for climbing onto a soapbox. Thinking about hunger, especially when many of us are still recovering from the food excesses of Thanksgiving — and perhaps the shopping aftermath — gets me going.

So to end on a somewhat different note, this is also the time of year when we with the wherewithal often give to the charities of our choice. Our gifts can’t eliminate hunger. We need sufficiently funded government programs for that.

But organizations that feed poor and near-poor people and advocate on their behalf deserve our support. Off the soapbox and onto other issues.

Lawsuit Seeks More Federal Spending to Help Supply Nonprofit Feeding Programs

November 12, 2015

Bread for the City, one of the District of Columbia’s largest nonprofit sources of food and services for poor and near-poor residents, has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It contends that the agency has failed to spend as much on TEFAP (the Emergency Food Assistance Program) as the current Farm Bill requires. So it’s not receiving all the non-perishables it could put in the grocery bags it distributes as it would if USDA complied with the law.

If true, at least 60,000 free food providers nationwide — pantries, dining rooms and home-delivered equivalents — could have less than Congress intended. They’d have been shy the food equivalent of about $303 million last fiscal year, judging from USDA’s account of its state-by-state distribution.

The relevant legislation is beyond my capacity to parse. As a legal expert explained it, the alleged under-spending involves two identical provisions — one in the current Farm Bill and one in the former Farm Bill, which it amended.

Basically, he said, each adds $250 million to a base that’s annually adjusted for food price increases, as reflected in the Thrifty Food Plan, which USDA uses to set SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

The current bill then adds a further increase that ratchets down from $50 million last fiscal year to $40 million for the current budget year, then further down through 2018.

The lawsuit contends that USDA should have spent $602 million on food purchases last year. USDA, however, interprets the law to have authorized only $327 million — this apparently because it sees a single applicable provision where the legal expert (and Bread’s lawyers) see two.

Even that’s a boost from the roughly $265.8 million authorized for Fiscal Year 2013. But the boost the lawsuit claims Congress authorized is obviously much larger. A substantial boost would not be unprecedented, however.

Congress, I’m told, often increases TEFAP funding when it cuts funding for SNAP, it did in the new Farm Bill, which reduced benefits for an expected 850,000 or so households.

The notion, it seems, is to partly compensate for the fact that SNAP cuts cause more poor and near-poor people to seek food from nonprofit providers — and to cause more to seek it more often.

Feeding America reported more frequent visits to the feeding programs its food bank network helps supply — partly with foods it gets from TEFAP — even before Congress cut SNAP benefits. And a large increase in people served too.

Bread for the City’s experience indicates that the trend continues. During the last fiscal year, its pantry served 11-12% more low-income households, a spokesperson told me. At the same time, the dollar value of commodities from TEFAP has dropped markedly, she said. And, of course, food costs are rising.

As a result, Bread has to rely more on what it gets from private donors to purchase what it distributes — three day’s worth of groceries per month for all low-income residents who apply and have equipment at home to fix meals.

It hasn’t turned any away or reduced the amount it distributes, as some feeding programs have. Nor has it compromised its high nutrition standards for what goes into the grocery bags.

But we see here again an instance of the cost-shifting I’ve spoken of before — a linchpin of new House Speaker Ryan’s explicit justification for large-scale cuts in safety net programs.

As Congress under-funds federal food assistance programs, private-sector organizations — both nonprofits and their donors — do their best to fill “the meal gap,” as Feeding America calls it. But there’s only so much they can do.

Two years ago, filling the gap, i.e., providing every food insecure household in the country with enough extra money to have no imminent risk of hunger, would have cost an additional $24.2 billion, Feeding America reports.

No way the private sector could come up with that much more. And the cost of filling the gap would actually be larger because the Census survey that USDA uses for its food (in)security reports doesn’t include individuals and families who are homeless.

The percent of eligible District residents who receive SNAP benefits is extraordinarily high. Yet more than 41,300 housed households — an average of roughly one in seven — suffered from food insecurity during the three-year period including 2014.

The Food Research and Action Center, which uses a roughly equivalent measure and a larger survey sample, reports somewhat more than one in six for 2014 alone.

These figures provide a perspective on the challenges the District’s nonprofit food assistance network faces, though, as I’ve suggested, only partial, since we’ve got hungry homeless people too.

The challenges are, of course, not unique. In Mississippi, for example, the latest three-year average food insecurity rate is 22% and FRAC’s latest food hardship rate even higher.

The court order Bread’s lawsuit seeks wouldn’t make these challenges manageable. And I’m not prepared to predict the outcome — or even comment on the validity of the claim.

But it does seem that TEFAP, like other parts of our safety net, could do more to relieve hunger and malnutrition if federal spending better reflected need.



New Proof That SNAP Benefits Are Too Low

September 25, 2014

As Hunger Action Month draws to a close, I’m recurring to what some of you followers may understandably view as an obsession — the need to increase SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Two recent reports by U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers provide further proof.

Food Insecurity, Despite SNAP

As you may have read, USDA reported that 14.3% of American households — about 17.5 million — were food insecurity during at least part of 2013. At least 8 million had incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP.* And 53% of them received SNAP benefits during the entire year.

In other words, by definition, they didn’t always have “access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” benefits notwithstanding. They didn’t all suffer from hunger, however, because a household may be food insecure if it recurrently can’t afford balanced meals for everyone.

But 23.9% of them had what USDA calls “very low food security.” This means that at least one member, at least some of the time had to skimp on or altogether skip meals because the household didn’t have the resources to buy enough food, healthful or otherwise.

Both the overall food insecurity and the “very low food security” rates for SNAP households are somewhat higher than the 2012 rates. And those were somewhat higher than the 2011 rates.

Food Costs and SNAP Benefits

The households surveyed for the food (in)security report spent, on average, $50 per person per week for food — somewhat over $6.00 more per person than what the maximum SNAP benefit for a three-member household would have covered.

USDA provides a better — if somewhat oblique — measure of the adequacy of SNAP benefits by using the costs of its Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining those benefits.

Adjusting for household size and the age/gender configurations used for the market baskets the TFP comprises, researchers found that the typical food secure household spent 21% more for food than the TFP cost.

Another study by USDA researchers focused on whether adults who received SNAP benefits drank more high-calories beverages than other low-income adults. The full answer (behind a paywall, alas) is that they didn’t.

I mentioned the study here because, as the Food Research and Action Center helpfully reports, the average SNAP recipient surveyed lived in a household whose monthly benefits typically fell $209 short of what it spent on food.

All told, 81% of the recipients surveyed spent more on food than their SNAP benefits covered — obviously, a whole lot more in many cases. The average household’s benefits covered somewhat less than 58% of its monthly food bills.

As you may recall, Congress cut all SNAP benefits by using for other purposes funds the Recovery Act had allocated for a boost. The boost was originally supposed to last until the customary food-cost adjustments to SNAP benefits caught up with it.

The cuts went into effect last November. So they probably aren’t reflected in the food insecurity figures I cited above — or, I would guess, in the shortfalls the beverage survey found.

A Long-Standing Problem

We’ve had evidence that SNAP benefits are insufficient — and why — for a goodly number of years.

FRAC has repeatedly cited defects in the TFP — unrealistically low costs among them. It’s been raising this issue since the early 1990s, when it cited state and local studies showing that the actual costs of the TFP were higher for low-income families than the cost USDA set.

A two-city study conducted in 2007 found that a family of four receiving the maximum SNAP benefit would have had to come up with $2,500 more a year in the lower-cost city — and $3,165 in the higher-cost city — to cover the costs of foods in the TFP.

And, as a wrote awhile ago, a committee of National Research Council and Institute of Medicine experts conclude that one of the key assumptions built into the TFP is “out of synch” with the way most families put food on the table today — and inferentially, with the way many SNAP recipients can.

None of this seems to make a whit of difference to our federal policymakers. Witness the Farm Bill Congress recently passed — and what it might have passed if Republicans had controlled the Senate. But maybe some day ….

* The 8 million are households with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income maximum for SNAP. The USDA report uses this percent of the FPL as the cut-off for reporting SNAP participation. But 27 states and the District of Columbia have exercised an option to raise their gross income cut-offs. So there may actually have been more food insecure SNAP households.



Hunger in America Widespread and Frequent, New Report Shows

September 8, 2014

About one in seven people in America — 46.5 million in all — depend, at least in part, on nonprofit feeding programs to stave off hunger. This is one of many, many things we can learn from Feeding America’s report on its latest survey of the agencies it helps supply and their clients.

These many, many things gel into different stories. I’ll focus on one of them here — the fact that in this very wealthy country of ours, a very large number of people can’t always afford to eat healthfully, SNAP (the food stamp program) notwithstanding.

But first a few words about the programs themselves. About two-thirds of the more than 58,000 programs that Feeding America helps supply through its food bank network provide groceries.

Most of the others provide foods already prepared. They include so-called soup kitchens, meals delivered to the homes of elderly and disabled people and food services for homeless shelters, other residential facilities, senior centers and daycare centers for children.

Some provide meals and/or snacks to kids who participate in after-school activities, either as their exclusive service or in addition to the aforementioned.

So the programs reach diverse people in diverse ways. Feeding America’s new report reflects responses from more than 60,000 of them.

Some Key Facts About Program Clients

In some respects, it’s hard to generalize about the beneficiaries of the feeding programs because, as I said, they’re a diverse group — and the report is chock-full of data points. For those of us who attend to the poverty dialogue, if we should call it that, a couple of things jump out.

More program clients are white than belong to any other race/ethnicity group — 43.4% of the total and nearly half of the prepared-meal recipients.

Among the adults, 72.5% have, at most, a high school diploma or the equivalent. But 20.5% have at least some college education — and 5.7% a four-year college degree or higher. Slightly over 10% were enrolled in school at the time the survey was conducted.

Nearly 54% of all clients lived in a household where someone was employed during the year. The percent is considerably higher — 70.6% — for households with children.

Yet unemployment and under-employment are clearly problems. Only 34.3% of households included any member who’d worked at least six months out of the last twelve. And only 43% included someone who’d worked at least 30 hours a week.

Both these percents are higher for households with children — 48.9% and 47% respectively. Yet obviously lack of paying work helps account for their food assistance needs.

Ongoing Financial Hardships

Several years ago, Feeding America reported that visits to food pantries had “become the new normal.” This is apparently still true. The number of times individuals and families received groceries and/or meals was well over eight times greater than the number served — 389.2 million over the course of a year.

What this tell us, of course, is that a great many weren’t coping with a one-time emergency. Both the employment figures and others indicate ongoing financial hardships.

About half of the households the grocery and meal programs served were officially poor, i.e. living below the federal poverty line. They include 11.7% who reported no income at all during the past twelve months.

An additional 33.2% had incomes between 101% and 185% of the FPL — the cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

The median annual income for all households served was $9,175 — less than a fifth of the median for all U.S. households. The median for those with children was somewhat higher — $11,721. But because these households are larger, 77% lived below the FPL.

All but 6.8% of client households lived in what the report characterizes as a “nontemporary housing arrangement,” e.g., an apartment, a house they owned, were paying for or sharing.

But that doesn’t mean they were all stably housed. Nearly 27% had lived in at least two places during the past year. Somewhat over 22% started doubling-up with family members or someone else. And 15.5% had been foreclosed on or evicted within the last five years.

What About Food Stamps?

Notwithstanding their need for food assistance, only 54.8% of client households received SNAP benefits. This seems a low participation rate. And the survey data don’t altogether explain it.

All we know for sure is that about 28% of the households had incomes above the standard eligibility cut-off. But most states and the District of Columbia have higher gross income cut-offs now.

The report suggests that some others might have had savings and/or other assets above the very low limit that some states still impose.

Some probably didn’t qualify because of their immigration status. Federal law bars not only undocumented immigrants, but most of those who’ve been in the country legally for less than five years.

It’s still the case that more households probably could have qualified for SNAP and for various reasons, chose not to apply. The benefits obviously wouldn’t have enabled all them to keep food on the table, however.

About 86% of the client households enrolled in SNAP reported that they use them up in three weeks or less. The same was true for 88.8% of the SNAP households with children.

Struggles, Even With the Feeding Programs

Large numbers of households had to make trade-offs between food and some other necessity — or perhaps multiple necessities.

For example, 57.1% reported having to choose between paying for food or for housing at least once during the prior year. Percents were considerably higher for other trade-offs — nearly 66% for medical care, 66.5% for transportation and 69.3% for utilities.

For many, these weren’t one-time hard choices. More than 30% reported making them every month, except for housing. And that percent wasn’t much lower.

These weren’t the only types of choices households made. Well over 78% — and 83.5% of those with children — reported buying “inexpensive, unhealthy food.” More than half reported knowingly eating food past its expiration date.

And 40% said they watered down food and/or drink. The percent is higher for households with children — 44.8%.

So there you have it — or rather, some select pieces of it. That we should have such hunger in America today is, to my mind, simply shameful — and a call to action on various fronts.

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.

New Food Insecurity Figures Bolster Case Against Food Stamp Cuts

September 6, 2013

The just-released U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual food security report is a half-empty, half-full story.

The half-full part is that the food insecurity rate, i.e., the percent of households that didn’t always have enough food to support “an active, healthy life for all members,” wasn’t significantly higher in 2012 than in 2011 — and in fact, has remained basically flat since the recession set in.

This is also true, though only since 2009, for what USDA terms the “very low food security” rate, i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes had to skimp on or skip meals because there wasn’t enough food for everyone.

The half-empty part is that the rate hasn’t dropped. So a very large number of people, including children, were at risk of hunger — or sometimes actually hungry — because they (or their parents) couldn’t afford to buy enough food.

Needless to say (I hope), both the food insecurity rate and the very low food security rate were considerably higher last year than in 2007 — one of many indicators that the Great Recession caused significant, continuing hardships for lower-income Americans.

Almost surely greater hardships than the figures show because, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, the survey USDA uses doesn’t include homeless people.

Here are some of the top-line figures, a handful of breakouts and a few remarks on policy implications.

The Big Picture

  • 17.6 million U.S. households (14.5%) were food insecure in 2012.
  • Of these, more than 6.9 million (5.7%) had very low food insecurity.
  • Well over 48.9 million people were food insecure and about 17.2 million of them sometimes without enough to eat.
  • About 8.3 million children (11.3%) lived in households where they and/or other children were food insecure.
  • And though adults generally protect children from hunger, 977,000 children and/or their siblings didn’t always get enough to eat.

Demographic Disparities

Not surprisingly, food insecurity rates mirror disparate poverty and unemployment rates. Thus, for example:

  • The food insecurity rate for black households was more than double the rate for white, non-Hispanic households — 24.6%, as compared to 11.2%.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was nearly as high as the rate for black households — 23.3%.
  • The food insecurity rate for single-mother families was 35.4% and the very low food security rate 12.7% — nearly four times the rate for married-couple families.

Also not surprisingly, state food insecurity rates varied markedly — from 20.9% in Mississippi to 8.7% in North Dakota, which weathered the recession remarkably well.

The food insecurity rate for the District of Columbia was 12% and the very low food security rate 4.5%. As with the state rates, these are two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small survey sample sizes.

Worse to Come?

Half the households with incomes below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income cut-off for SNAP (food stamp) eligibility — received SNAP benefits all year and were nevertheless food insecure.

Confirmation, were any needed, that SNAP benefits are, for many families, too low now.

Yet, unless Congress does something unexpected, all SNAP households will lose a portion of their benefits in November. They’ll have, on average, less than $1.40 per person per meal — hardly enough for “a healthy, active life.”

Meanwhile, the House Republican leadership seems ready to introduce the missing nutrition part of the Farm Bill it passed in July.

A briefing paper Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently circulated indicates that, as expected, the proposal will cut SNAP by $40 billion or more over the next 10 years.

At least four million and perhaps as many as six million low-income people would lose their benefits, according to CBPP estimates.

At the same time, about 210,000 children would lose their eligibility for free school meals because it’s tied to their family’s participation in SNAP.

I’d like to hope, but really don’t that the USDA report would give House Republicans pause.

What it could do is drive another nail in the coffin of a split-the-difference compromise between the House and the Senate, which passed a Farm Bill with a much smaller SNAP cut.

Not that any cut is called for, mind you. We’ve already got 12.7 million more food insecure people in America than we had in 2007. And even the lower number speaks ill of a country with as much wealth as ours.