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.

 

 


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.


Hunger Struck More Families Last Year, USDA Reports

September 7, 2012

September is Hunger Action Month — a campaign launched by Feeding America to get us involved in efforts to help end hunger in this country.

And hunger there surely is, as the latest food (in)security report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

Last year, nearly 174.9 million households sometimes — or often — didn’t have the resources to buy the food that all members needed “for an active, healthy life.” These are households USDA classifies as food insecure.

There were more of them than in 2010, but the percent increase isn’t statistically significant, USDA says.

The bigger news, I think, is that the number of households with very low food security, i.e., those in which at least one member sometimes scrimped on meals or skipped them altogether, rose to more than 6.8 million — 5.7% of all households surveyed.

This is statistically significant. And it puts the very low food security rate back up to where it was during the recession we’re still recovering from.

All told, nearly 16.9 million people sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. For adults, in the main, this typically meant hunger during seven months of the year — and for a few days during each of these months.

Drilling down a bit, we see that:

  • Food insecurity afflicted 20.6% of households with children — nearly 8 million families.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in slightly under half these households — and actually experienced hunger in 374,000 of them.
  • Food insecurity rates were highest for single-mother families — 36.8% or more than 3.5 million families.
  • More than 1.1 million of them — 11.6% — were so food insecure as to fall into the generally recurrent hunger category.
  • Single-father households also had unusually high food insecurity rates — 24.9%. But there were far fewer of them.

The correlation with poverty is, of course, very high. So not surprisingly, we see significant race/ethnicity differences.

  • Among black households, 25.1% were food insecure, as compared to 11.4% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The very low food security, i.e., hunger, rate among black households was 10.5%, as compared to 4.6% for white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 26.% and the very low food security rate 8.3%.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in 14.6% of black households, as compared to 6.7% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The child food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 17.4%.

Well over 88% of food insecure households were poor enough to qualify for food stamps. The USDA report doesn’t tell us how many received them. It does, however, tell us how households below the program’s standard income eligibility ceiling fared.

On the one hand, a large majority managed to keep enough food on the table without food stamps for all of 2011.

The survey results don’t tell us how, though we might guess that free school meals played a part. Perhaps also the food pantries and other emergency sources that Feeding America’s network supplies.

On the other hand, nearly half (49.1%) of the households that received food stamps all year were nevertheless food insecure. And more than one in five (22.3%) were so food insecure that at least one member of the household didn’t always have enough — or anything — to eat.

The new Farm Bill the Senate passed would nevertheless reduce food stamp benefits for about half a million households.

The version pending in the House would do the same. It would also cut off all benefits for at least 1.8 million low-income people, plus free school meals for about 280,000 prospectively hungry children.

If we’re going to end hunger in America — a doable thing in this very wealthy country — the very least our elected representatives can do now is avoid making it worse.

Sad that anyone should have to say something so blatantly self-evident.


Some Policy Lessons From USDA’s Food Security Report

September 21, 2011

No one, I suppose, needs to be reminded that public benefits programs are in the bull’s eye. Federal nutrition assistance programs are no exception

Funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) has been cut, and the House of Representatives has voted to trim it further. It’s approved cuts for other food assistance programs as well.

The House budget plan would also radically reduce funding for SNAP (the food stamp program) — this by converting it into a block grant.

And who knows what will happen when the Super Committee starts looking for budget savings to meet its $1.5 trillion target?

All these threats make the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest food security report especially timely.

Because the results tell us that the main federal nutrition assistance programs are working — not as well as they might, but well enough to keep hunger at bay in a very high percentage of low-income households.

In 2010, the percent of households that experienced food insecurity remained essentially flat — 14.5% as compared to 14.7% in 2009. The difference, USDA says, is not statistically significant.

What the rate means is that an estimated 85.5% of households had “enough food for an active, healthy life” for all members at all times during the year — virtually the same as in 2008, the first full year of our Great Recession.

This in itself is noteworthy.

More noteworthy is the fact that the percent of households experiencing very low food insecurity, i.e., those with such limited resources that some member(s) sometimes had to cut back on or altogether skip meals, dropped from 5.7% to 5.4%.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that the biggest declines were among households with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, i.e.,  households that could have been eligible for one or more of the main food assistance programs.

Those with children, for example, generally would have been eligible for WIC and/or free or reduced-price school meals. Their very low food security rate dropped from 2.9% to 2.1%.

This is hardly to say that all would be well if we could just protect the key nutrition assistance programs from the cost-cutting impulses of those in Congress who view federal “welfare” spending as a budget-busting failure.

Consider, for example, that food insecurity rates were less than half the 2010 rate for all three years before the recession set in. Or that barely more than half the households with incomes low enough to be eligible received food stamp benefits for any part of the year.

Of those that got them for the entire year, 49.3% still suffered from low or very low food security. So it seems reasonable to suppose that the benefits didn’t cover the costs of as much food as they needed.

And, indeed, we see that better-off households, i.e., those with incomes over 185% of the FPL, spent 30% more on food than the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket USDA uses to calculate food stamp benefits.

Households at the upper end of the eligibility range might have had resources to fill the gap. The poorer would probably have had to make do with less food than an “active, healthy life” requires.

Thus we see much higher food insecurity rates among populations with the highest poverty rates.

For example, the food insecurity rate for single mothers with children was 20.6% higher than the overall household rate. For black households, it was 10.6% higher and for Hispanic households, 11.7% higher.

Yet other data suggest that poverty alone may not account for disparities among food insecurity rates.

We see big differences among the three-year rates that USDA uses to compensate for relatively low state-level survey samples.

In 2008-10, the averages ranged from 19.4% in Mississippi and 18.8% in Texas (knew you’d want that one) to 7.1% in North Dakota. They don’t align neatly with differences in poverty rates.

The District of Columbia, for example, had higher poverty rates than the overall U.S. rates for the three-year period. Yet its average food insecurity rate was lower than the national average — 13% as compared to 14.6% nationwide. Its very low food security rate was also lower — 4.5% as compared to 5.6%.

The message here is that food security hinges in part on state and local policies. It’s hardly coincidental, I think, that USDA had to intervene in Texas because the government had made choices that created huge backlogs in food stamp applications.

The largest threats now, however, seem to be at the federal level. Spending cuts in nutrition programs will affect low-income people in every state. They’ll also further depress consumer demand — and thus cause more job losses.

Which will, of course, drive up the number of households that can’t afford to keep enough food on the table for a healthy life.