New Evidence for Old Food Stamp Problem

December 16, 2015

A new report from the White House delivers a mixed message on the benefits of SNAP (the food stamp program).

On the one hand, as Census data and a plethora of research show, SNAP reduces poverty, food insecurity and adverse consequences of both, e.g., poor physical and mental health, problems in school, eventual dropouts.

On the other hand, many households that receive SNAP benefits year round are still food insecure — more than half, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture report. And nearly half of these include at least one member who actually had to skimp on meals or skip them altogether.

Nothing fundamentally new here. What is new — at least to me — are two types of studies reinforcing other evidence that SNAP benefits are too low.

Effects on Temporary SNAP Boost

As I’ve written before, the Recovery Act included an increase in the maximum SNAP benefit a household could receive. USDA researchers looked at the impacts on food insecurity during the first year of the boost.

They found that the food insecurity rate for households eligible for SNAP dropped about 8%, while the rate rose for households with incomes somewhat above the standard maximum for eligibility.

At the same time, the very low food security rate, i.e., the percent of households where hunger was more than a risk, dropped by about 17%.

The boost thus provided roughly 530,000 more households with the resources needed to “have consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

But Congress twice foreshortened the duration of the boost to help offset the costs of newer spending measures. But the effects while it lasted tend to indicate that benefits are too low — and in fact, still were while they were higher. We didn’t, after all, see anything close to a zero percent food insecurity rate for SNAP recipients then.

End-of-the-Month Effects

Several studies looked at what happens during the course of a month — from the time households receive their SNAP benefits to the time they’re due for more.

They tend to use a disproportionate share of their benefits early on, but not to stock up on non-perishables they can use to prepare meals all month long, the research indicates. Nor do they generally buy more pricey foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. So the dietary quality of what they eat doesn’t change.

They apparently just eat less over the course of a month. Their calorie consumption declines as much as 25%, according to one researcher’s estimate. But the end-of-the-month drop was less when they still had the higher Recovery Act benefits.

Though some of us may view reduced calorie intake as a good thing, it can cause serious health problems. Diabetics, for example, can suffer from dangerously low blood sugar levels when they don’t eat regularly.

So one research team looked at hospital admissions for hypoglycemia (the technical terms for a low blood sugar level) over the course of the monthly SNAP benefits cycle. They found 28% more admissions during the last week than the first.

This understates the effects of having to cut back on food, the White House report tells us. The hospital admissions don’t include treatments in emergency rooms. Nor, of course, untreated cases that can lead to more serious health problems — or even death.

Two other studies looked at children’s performance in school over the monthly benefits cycle. One found higher average math and reading test scores among children whose families had received their SNAP benefits several weeks before the tests, when the kids would have been learning what they were tested on — and probably getting prepped.

The other study focused on behavioral problems, as measured by disciplinary actions in a large public school district. It found a higher rate of disciplinary actions against children from SNAP households than others.

There could be various reasons for this, including what seems a greater readiness to suspend or expel black, Hispanic and certain other minority students who are more likely than others to have poor or near-poor parents.

But the disciplinary actions rate gap grew toward the end of the benefits month. Factoring out differences in student characteristics suggests that the late-month exhaustion of SNAP benefits causes an 11% increase in disciplinary actions against students in families that receive them.

Inferentially then, if families had larger SNAP benefits, their school-age children would do better academically and be less likely to act up in ways that deny them the chance because they’re in the principal’s office, confined to a room where they may not get taught anything or barred from the school altogether.

Root of the Problem

The White House report briefly summarizes new research indicating that the Thrifty Food Plan — the basis for determining SNAP benefits — is overly thrifty, even when households supplement them with some of their own income, as they’re expected to.

We’ve had evidence of this for some time, as followers of this blog know. We have studies of the actual costs of a TFP market basket.  We have a report from experts at the Institute of Medicine, citing, among other things, unrealistic assumptions built into the TFP.

None of this seems to make any difference. The latest Farm Bill cut SNAP benefits for 850,000 or so households — and would have been much worse if the House Republicans’ version had prevailed. So much for evidence.

The White House report nevertheless amply bolsters the case for an altogether revamped TFP — or as the Food Research and Action Center has long advocated, a switch to USDA’s cheapest food plan for everybody who doesn’t have to depend on SNAP to stave off hunger.

 

 


When No News Isn’t Good News: Hunger Edition

September 24, 2015

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the food insecurity rate last year was so little different from the 2013 rate as to be statistically the same — 14%.

That’s about 17.4 million households or a total of 48.1 million people without “consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

There was also no measurable change in what USDA calls the “very low food security rate,” i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes didn’t have enough to eat due to lack of resources, including SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

More than 6.9 million households — 5.6% of all in the U.S. — fell into this category. And in 422,000 of them, children were sometimes hungry, had to skip meals or even went a whole day without anything to eat. No statistically significant change in this rate either.

These figures almost surely understate the actual extent of malnutrition and hunger in this country because the survey they’re based on doesn’t include homeless individuals or families. They’re nonetheless troubling. And the news doesn’t get more cheering as we drill down.

Food Insecurity Over the Longer Term

The nationwide food insecurity rate peaked in 2011, when it was 14.9%. The latest rate is lower than that, by a meaningful amount. But the very low food security rate isn’t.

Looking back over a longer time period, the food insecurity rate in 1999 was 10.1%. It rose every year, but one thereafter until 2012. At the same time, the very low food security rate inched up, though not yearly until 2009.

We see a slight drop then, but a return to the prior rate — 5.7% — the following year. And, as the foregoing indicates, that’s basically where it’s stuck.

Food Costs and SNAP

The typical U.S. household spent $50 a week per person for food last year. This is 17% more than the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits.

But the percent is considerably higher for households with incomes of at least 185% of the federal poverty line, the income eligibility cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

These households spent $52.50 a week per person or 30% more than what the Thrifty Food Plan would allot them. As in the past, these figures are among the many that tells us SNAP benefits are too low.

The more telling, however, are the food insecurity rates among households that received these benefits for the entire 12 months the survey covered.

More than half the households — 51.9% — were food insecure. And well over half of these — 25.5% — had very low food security. Both these rates are somewhat higher than in 2012, the last full year before the premature expiration of the SNAP benefits boost the Recovery Act provided.

Food Insecurity in the District of Columbia

USDA reports three-year averages for states and the District to compensate for the relatively small number of households surveyed each year.

During 2012-14, 13.2% of D.C. households — roughly 41,315 — were food insecure. Of these, 4.9% — about 15,335 — couldn’t always afford to buy enough food of any sort for everyone to have enough to eat.

Both these rates are essentially the same as the national rates for the same time period. And both are essentially the same as the District’s rates during 2009-11. They’re considerably higher, however, than the rates during 2002-4, when they were 10.2% and 2.9%.

The just-released results of the American Community Survey don’t yet include current three-year averages for SNAP. We do, however, learn that 14.4% of District households received SNAP benefits last year. This is somewhat higher than the nationwide rate. But it apparently doesn’t translate into less food insecurity.

Don’t know what to make of all of this beyond the obvious. While SNAP benefits are too low everywhere, they’re especially insufficient in high-cost cities like the District, as research I’ve previous cited shows.

SNAP households are expected to spend 30% of their own money on food. Even that much probably wouldn’t make up for the shortfall between SNAP benefits and the costs of even the unrealistic Thrifty Food Plan.

In any case, a family doesn’t live by food alone. High housing costs and extraordinarily high childcare costs dwarf the estimated amount a family would need for food in the District.

So one has to assume that at least some families spend less on food than what’s supposed to be their share because that’s the only way they can pay the rent — and the only way they can work if they’ve got children who can’t be left to fend for themselves or with a friend of family member.

We’ve got a broad network of nonprofits that provide free food and/or meals to low-income District residents. But as Bread for the World’s president has said, “We can’t ‘food bank’ our way out of hunger.”

The new USDA figures confirm this not only for the District, but elsewhere. Yet we’re a long way from long-advocated increases in SNAP benefits — and a long way as well, it seems, from federal appropriations that would increase the reach of other anti-hunger programs.

In fact, we’ll be lucky if the news from Capitol Hill is no news.

 

 


What the Food Stamp Challenge May Do … and What It Can’t

October 13, 2014

D.C. Hunger Solutions invited me to take the Food Stamp Challenge last week. I’d be joining not only fellow District residents, but also Maryland and Virginia residents who’d been recruited by similar Food Research and Action Center initiatives there.

I took a pass. Truth to tell, I couldn’t see myself living on a $33 grocery budget for the week. For food maybe. But doing without the rich, dark coffee I drink from morn to eve? No way.

I told myself that taking the Food Stamp Challenge wouldn’t achieve anything anyway. It’s supposed to raise awareness of hunger — and more particularly, the woeful insufficiency of SNAP benefits.

Well, I already know that, as a long stream of posts indicates. And I felt that I’d bore friends and followers by blogging, tweeting, FaceBook posting, etc. about my daily trials. Do you really care that I scraped the bottom of the peanut butter jar for lunch or how I suffered from caffeine withdrawal syndrome?

Maybe if I extracted lessons, the way D.C. Hunger Solutions’ Executive Director Alex Ashbrook has. But that didn’t occur to me. I suspect I would have been too grumpy and jittery for contemplation anyway.

Rationalizing perhaps. But I still can’t get on board with the notion that the Food Stamp Challenge raises awareness of what it’s like to depend on SNAP benefits — an inherent flaw acknowledged by D.C. Hunger Solutions itself.

On the one hand, those who do depend on SNAP don’t buy food for only a week. They’ll have some oil on hand to fry up potatoes — perhaps some rice and beans in the cabinet because they stocked up during a sale.

Or in some cases they won’t because, unlike any Food Stamp Challenge participant, they don’t have transportation to get to a grocery story (and home with all the bags) — or because they don’t have a kitchen to cook in.

More importantly, their food stamp challenges go on and on. It’s one thing to dine on ramen noodles for a couple of nights. Quite another to know you’ll be serving ramen noodles to your kids for the indefinite future.

Blogger Professor Tracey captured this difference back in 2009, when she critiqued a month-long Food Stamp Challenge undertaken by a reporter.

“He always knew the experiment would end,” she wrote. “I would be willing to wager for the majority of people living on public assistance that for them one of the most disconcerting aspects is having no idea when they will be able to stop relying on public assistance, if ever.”

And, of course, SNAP recipients can’t quit or cheat, as we know some Food Stamp Challenge participants have — and can guess others did as well.

Finally, we need to recall that the amount participants are challenged to live on is a fourth of the average monthly SNAP benefit. That’s about $33 here in the District and nationwide — somewhat less in Maryland and Virginia.

But the average is considerably lower in some states — barely over $29 in three. And all the averages are just that. Lots of SNAP beneficiaries receive much less — as little as $16 a month in all but two states.

This, we’re told, is one reason that only a third of seniors who’d be eligible for SNAP benefits apply, even though many others can’t fend off hunger without groceries from a food pantry. Paltry SNAP benefits also help explain the reliance on nonprofit feeding programs, of course.

Here in the District, the DC Council has budgeted enough in local funds to raise the minimum SNAP benefit to $30 a month — thanks to a campaign spearheaded by D.C. Hunger Solutions.

It has also adopted the mayor’s proposal to raise the minimum LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit. This will preserve the somewhat higher SNAP benefits some residents have received because — again thanks to D.C. Hunger Solutions — it adopted the so-called “heat and eat” option in 2009.

Nine of the 15 states that had adopted “heat and eat” have done the same, putting House Republican leaders into an awful snit.

Did policymakers shore up SNAP benefits because they’d learned from the Food Stamp Challenge?  Hardly. But notwithstanding all that I’ve said, I suppose it’s possible that policymakers and others who can get their stories into major media may, if only briefly, call attention to the benefits problem.

And I suppose it’s also possible that living for a week on a food stamp budget may put fire into the briefly-unsatisfied bellies of some Challenge participants who’d been content to leave advocacy to others.

Yet a series of polls tell us that more voters than not already think the federal government should spend more to combat hunger. Did this matter to Congressional Republicans — House members, in particular — when they set out to slash SNAP spending for the next five years?

When I shared my reservations about the Food Stamp Challenge with an anti-hunger advocate, she said, in so many words, “The people who should take it won’t.” I think they won’t care about the experiences of those who do either.

They’re ideologically driven to cut safety-net spending and will rationalize that however they can. But there’s animus against poor people in some quarters too. They don’t want to work. They use their SNAP benefits for liquor, lap dances, etc. rather than to feed their children. They [you can fill in the rest].

Darned if I know what we can do to persuade these folks that no one wants to depend on public benefits — or that everyone should have enough to eat, every day of the month, fresh fruits and veggies included

Make the Food Stamp Challenge a qualification for public office?

 

 


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.