Big Myths Used To Sell Food Stamp Block Grant

May 12, 2011

I might feel better about the House Republicans’ food stamp block grant if Congressman Paul Ryan, who wrote it, were up front about the motive. Not more supportive, mind you, but less concerned — and angry.

It’s clear that the food stamp block grant, like the Medicaid block grant, aims to slash federal safety net spending. Savings on food stamp benefits, plus state administrative support would total nearly 20% over the first 10 years.

The objective here is to pare back what we’ve come to view as our government’s mission — and to offset the revenues that will be lost by the proposed tax cut extensions and expansions.

But the budget plan doesn’t justify the food stamp program that way. It relies instead of three big myths.

The first is that the safety net is likely to become — if it hasn’t already — a “comfortable hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency.”

Complacency? Ryan and his colleagues obviously haven’t taken a food stamp challenge recently — or tried to support themselves and their families on an income well below the federal poverty line.

The second myth is that participation in the food stamp program is increasing at a “relentless and unsustainable” rate because states get more federal funds when they enroll people.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the recession accounts for most of the recent uptick in food stamp spending. Costs, as a share of the nation’s economic output, will fall as the job market improves — because that’s how most of our better safety net programs work.

The third myth is that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been a roaring success and thus should be the model for other safety net programs.

The “proof” cited by the budget plan, as by other proponents of this view, is that the “reforms” it initiated cut caseloads dramatically during the first five years, while poverty rates also fell.

Lots of factors account for both, including a strong economy that made it relatively easy for TANF parents to find work — though often not long-term work at living wages.

But TANF caseloads didn’t expand when the economy cooled in the early 2000s. And, as Legal Momentum reports, only 6.6% more poor adults and children were added to the rolls during the first 19 months of the Great Recession.

That’s not because TANF is so successfully lifting poor families out of poverty. It’s because states have incentives to minimize their caseloads — and the benefits they provide. One of the biggest is the declining value of the federal block grant itself.

They’d have this same incentive if they got a fixed, inadequate sum for their food stamp programs, as they would under the House budget plan.

The plan warns that “the poor and vulnerable will undoubtedly be hardest hit” if the federal government experiences a debt crisis due to runaway spending because the “only recourse will be severe, across-the-board cuts.”

Seems the House Republicans have decided to preempt these hypothetical future cuts by making severe, targeted cuts to safety net programs like food stamps now.


House Republicans Vote To End Food Stamp Program As We Know It

May 5, 2011

I remarked awhile ago that parts of the House Republican Study Committee’s global attack on “welfare” could make their way into legislation that had a better chance of passing.

And sure enough. The budget plan House Republicans have passed includes a provision that would convert SNAP (the food stamp program) into a block grant rather like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Lest one doubt the motive, the plan projects savings totaling $127 billion over the first 10 years alone. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates losses to the District of Columbia and its food stamp-dependent households at $350 million.

I’ve written elsewhere about what the block grant could mean for households that depend on food stamps to keep food on the table.

Briefly, the block grant would put an inflexible constraint on spending, while presumably increasing flexibility on issues like participation criteria and benefits.

So Congress or states, at their discretion, could — and probably would have to — change eligibility standards so that people would have to be even poorer to qualify for food stamps and/or reduce monthly benefits so that they no longer had any basis in the costs of a nutritious diet.

We can see how the spending cap/flexibility model could play out by looking at states’ TANF programs.

According to a recent Legal Momentum review, only 40% of eligible families were enrolled in TANF in 2005, as compared to 84% in the last year of its non-block grant predecessor.

Cash benefits for a TANF family of three are less than 50% of the federal poverty line in every states and less than 30% in more than half. In all but two, they’re worth less in real-dollar value than when the program was created.

The food stamp block grant proposal has other radical implications.

It would end the long-standing principle that everyone (except some immigrants) whose income falls below the cut-off can get food stamps — and for as long as their income remains that low.

As with TANF, there would be new work requirements. But unlike TANF, there’d apparently be no federal funding within the program for client assessments, job training or the supportive services some recipients would need to meet the requirements, e.g., child care subsidies.

More importantly, food stamp benefits would be time-limited, just as TANF cash benefits are. After some number of years, people would be kicked out of the program, unless states chose to cover the full costs of the benefits themselves.

Would there by any exemptions — say, for people who are too young, too old or too disabled to work? For people who are working but still can’t afford to buy enough food for themselves or their families?

The budget plan doesn’t say. Doubtful the House members who voted for it — or even the drafters — have thought through such consequential details.

All they’re concerned about is cutting federal spending, except when it comes to the more than 50% of annual appropriations that go to the military.

But, like the RSC, the budget plan styles the food stamp block grant as the next step in “the historic bipartisan welfare reform” that gave us TANF.

Here’s hoping we’ve got no bipartisan support for this one — or lock-step support from Senate Republicans either.

What Map the Meal Says About Hunger In DC

April 28, 2011

As I recently wrote, Feeding America’s Map the Meal project provides food insecurity data for every state in the U.S. Happily, researchers stretched the category to include the District of Columbia.

So here’s a brief summary of what we learn about hunger in the District. I use the term “hunger” because people are counted as food insecure when they say they didn’t always have the resources to buy the food they and their families needed. Seems to me that, at least some of the time, they were probably hungry — not just insecure about where the next meal would come from.

In 2009:

  • 15.8% of District residents — 93,180 — were food insecure. This is slightly below the nationwide 16.6% rate, but about 4% higher than the rates for either Virginia or Maryland and more than twice as high as the rates for nearby Arlington and Montgomery counties.
  • Only 63% of food insecure District residents were eligible for food stamps, even under the higher eligibility ceiling authorized in 2009.
  • The average per meal cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — the basis for calculating food stamp benefits — was 67 cents higher than the national average.
  • So it would have cost somewhat over $53 million to make up the “meal gap,” i.e., the cost of providing all food insecure residents with enough to eat year round.

A couple of thoughts about the fact that we’re looking at 2009 data.

First — and this would be true for most other jurisdictions as well — the unemployment rate was higher then. By the end of the year, it had risen to 11.9%. As of this January, it was down to 9.8%.

For this reason alone, it’s possible that the next round of food insecurity data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will show a somewhat lower rate.

More importantly, the Income Maintenance Administration, which administers the food stamp program in the District, hadn’t implemented the higher income eligibility standard or a related reform that gives some eligible residents larger benefits.

The Food Stamp Expansion Act, which authorizes the changes, was adopted in June 2009. IMA got around to implementing the part that raises the income eligibility ceiling in March 2010.

The part that provides higher benefits for some food stamp recipients may have been implemented now, but only because of a recent legal settlement secured by the Legal Aid Society and pro bono partners.

So the 2009 food insecurity rate for the District may be higher than it would have been if the responsible District agencies had felt as much urgency as hungry residents undoubtedly did.

Or maybe this is an unfair cheap shot. While the DC Council imposed new tasks on IMA, it also agreed to budget cuts that squeezed the agency’s core operations. Perhaps this accounts, at least in part, for the delay.

I remarked awhile ago, that District officials characteristically do a better job at adopting new progressive policies than at providing the resources to make sure that existing policies can achieve what they’re supposed to. The same apparently can be said for follow-through on new policies.

Low-income residents really shouldn’t have to rely on attorneys to get them the benefits they’re legally entitled to. The District may have budget constraints, but what about theirs?

Nearly One In Five Americans Still Struggle With Hunger

March 27, 2011

The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center is one more indication that the recession is by no means over for a vast number of Americans.

In 2010, the nationwide food hardship rate was barely lower than in 2009 — 18%, as compared to 18.3%. In the other words, nearly one out of five people in this country sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

Things were worse at the end of 2008. But, for reasons as yet unexplained, the food hardship rate for the last quarter of 2010 was the highest since Congress passed the temporary increase in food stamp benefits in the first quarter of 2009.

As I’ve said before, “food hardship” is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture terms “food insecurity”.

A family is counted as having experienced food hardship if the member surveyed answers in the affirmative when asked, “Have there been times during the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy the food that you and your family needed?”

The new FRAC report is considerably more expansive than the update issued in January. It’s the organization’s second full analysis of data Gallup collects to use for a broader well-being index.

Unlike the survey the Census Bureau conducts for USDA, the Gallup sample is large enough to allow reasonably reliable breakouts by small geographic areas and also year-over-year comparisons at the state level.

This makes the report uniquely valuable in two ways.

First, it’s a fine advocacy tool because it provides food hardship rates for every Congressional district in the country. Want to tell your Representative to support the President’s proposed fix for the recent cutback in the food stamp boost? Cite the food hardship rate in your district.

Second, it lets us drill down below the nationwide figure in a variety of ways. We get figures not only for Congressional districts, but for each major region, each state and the District of Columbia and each of the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas, i.e., city-centered geographic areas defined for use by the Census Bureau and other federal statistical agencies.

So we learn, for example, that:

  • Food hardship rates are highest in the Southeast and Southwest. Indeed, 12 of the 20 states with the highest 2010 rates are in these regions.
  • Rates are at least 20% in 21 states, with Mississippi topping them all at nearly 29%.
  • Rates are 15% or higher in all but five states.
  • In no state is the rate below 10%.
  • Here in our nation’s capital, the rate is 18.9%, putting the District again in the middle of the state ranking.

In short, as the FRAC report says, “food hardship is a problem in every corner of America, and should be of concern to every member of Congress.”

Ah yes, but is it?

FRAC attributes the persistently high food hardship rates to the ongoing jobs crisis. As it notes, the 2010 U-6 rates — the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment — were generally comparable to those in 2009 and rose a bit toward the end of the year.

And even the U-6 measure understates the total number of jobless people who’d like to — and need to — work because it doesn’t include people who gave up looking more than a year ago.

But both the White House and Congress seem to have put the jobs crisis behind them. The hot debate is how much and where to cut spending. And, Republican assertions notwithstanding, spending cuts mean job losses.

The current spending-cut focus spells trouble for people who urgently need food assistance in other, more direct ways.

The continuing resolution the House passed in late February would cut funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) by about 10%. It would also cut funding for several other programs that help feed low-income people.

These cuts would theoretically be only temporary, since a new federal budget year begins on October 1. But they suggest that President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 proposals to address hunger and poor nutrition could face the chopping block.

Let’s hope all those members of Congress with high food hardship rates decide that three squares a day for the nearly 48 million poor people in this country are a better investment than, say, those still-unready, way-over-budget F-25 fighter planes.

UPDATE: Hope may spring eternal, but the Welfare Reform Act recently introduced by some House Republicans would, among other things, eliminate what remains of the funding to keep food stamp benefits at the higher level they’ve been since 2009, when the economic recovery act was passed.

Since this posting was first published, I’ve written another explaining why the bill threatens all safety net programs.

Food Security Report Shows Federal Nutrition Programs Working, But Not Well Enough

December 8, 2010

The recent U.S. Department of Agriculture household food security report confirms what we were already quite sure of. The number of food insecure households increased again last year. These are households that, at some point during the year, couldn’t afford to buy enough food for all members to have “active healthy lives.”

The increase wasn’t all that great — 17.4 million households, as compared to 17 million in 2008. But both years’ food insecurity rates were the highest USDA had found since it started doing nationally-representative surveys in 1995.

Similarly, the number of families that were very food insecure inched up a bit — from 6.7 million to 6.8 million. In other words, during the last two years, about a third of all food insecure families had such limited resources that at least one member sometimes had to cut back on the size of his/her meals or skip some altogether.

A breakdown of the household figures tells us that more than 50 million people — 16.6% of the population — suffered food insecurity last year. For children, the rate was an alarming 23.2%. That’s 17.2 million children at risk of hunger.

While this is bad news, it could have been much worse, given the sharp rise in the unemployment rate — up from 7.4% at the end of 2008 to 10% by the end of 2009.

As many have observed, the food stamp program seems to be serving its safety net function, with participation continuously rising to new record levels.

On the other hand, the federal nutrition assistance programs aren’t reaching nearly as many low-income households as they should. According to the Food Research and Action Center, only about two-thirds of eligible people are enrolled in the food stamp program.

During the 2008-9 school year, fewer than half the children poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch also got free or reduced-price breakfasts at their school. Figures for federally-subsidized summer meal programs are even worse.

Nor apparently are the benefits the major programs offer sufficient. About 35% of food insecure households and 56% of very food insecure households received food stamps. By definition, they still couldn’t consistently afford to keep enough food on the table.

Turning to the District, the figures we get are less accurate because USDA uses three-year averages to compensate for small state-level samples. The latest figures thus minimize the impacts of the recession.

With that caveat, 12.9% of D.C. households were food insecure, putting the District below the national rate and smack dab in the middle of a state-by-state ranking.

Somewhat less than a third of these households (4.5%) were very food insecure. On this measure, the District ranks lower than 36 states. So, as DC Hunger Solutions says, local efforts may be paying off.

We don’t know how many of the food insecure households were receiving food stamps during the period covered by the USDA average. What we do know is that, beginning in April 2009, those that did began receiving higher-than-usual food stamp benefits due to the nationwide 13.6% maximum boost provided by the economic recovery act.

Now the duration of the boost has been scaled back — first to help pay for some additional fiscal relief to the states and again when the House adopted the Senate’s version of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act. The Congressional Research Services estimates the loss when the boost ends at $10 to $15 per person per month.

Look for a bigger uptick in food insecurity when that happens, both nationwide and here in the District.

New York City Mayor Aims To Restrict Food Stamp Choices

October 18, 2010

New York City Mayor Bloomberg has made campaigns against unhealthy diets a personal cause — highly personal, we gather, as is often the case with people who battle their own health demons.

Back in 2006, Bloomberg’s administration led the country in prohibiting restaurants from serving foods containing artery-clogging trans fats. Next it became the first to mandate calorie counts on chain restaurant menus and menu boards. Next came a crusade against the sodium content in processed foods.

Bloomberg then zeroed in on soft drinks. In March, he voiced his support for a statewide penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks that New York Governor Patterson proposed after backing off a similar revenue-raiser last year.

Now he’s in the news again with a plan to prohibit New York City residents from using food stamps to purchase soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

For this he needs approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He’s proposing the ban as a two-year experiment to see whether it has a positive impact on food stamp recipients’ health — presumably by getting them to switch to more nutritious choices.

This is quite different from Bloomberg’s other campaigns. They sought to improve the diets of all New Yorkers — rich, poor and in between.

True, the soft drink tax would disproportionately affect low-income consumers. But the food stamp restriction is still different. It would single poor people out for a novel experiment in behavioral modification. No voluntary consent here.

Nor any assurance it will work. Researchers at USDA looked at the strategy three years ago and concluded that disallowing an “unhealthful” food choice “may have limited effectiveness.” Recipients may continue buying the forbidden item with their own money. Or they may just switch to other items that deliver little more by way of nutritional value.

So perhaps people with a sweet tooth will cut back on other expenditures we consider essential rather than forego one of the few indulgences within their reach. Or maybe they won’t buy so many Cokes, but go for Hershey bars and Twinkies instead. I suppose Bloomberg would say we’ll find out if he’s allowed to proceed with his experiment.

The truth of the matter, however, is that he’s proposing the soft drink ban as a test to bring it within the ambit of “demonstration projects” because it would otherwise be clearly impermissible under federal law. Joel Berg, Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says it’s still illegal.

USDA may think so too. In 2004, it denied a somewhat similar request by Minnesota in part because the proposed ban would “stigmatize food stamp recipients.”

Denying them — and only them — free choice in the grocery aisles “would perpetuate the myth that participants [in the program] do not make wise food purchasing decisions,” while research indicates they tend to be as “smart shoppers” as higher-income consumers.

To me, this comes close to the heart of the issue. Why should poor people be semi-coerced to eat more healthfully than the rest of us?

Granted, our taxpayer dollars pay for food stamps. So we’re subsidizing consumption of high-sugar beverages, which are said to be a leading factor in the rising rates of overweight and obesity. This means they’re also partly responsible for rising health care costs. We taxpayers bear the burden of these too.

But obesity isn’t a problem among low-income people alone. They do overall have a higher body-mass index (the common measure for healthy and unhealthy weights) than higher income groups. But, as the Food Research and Action Center reports, research shows that the risk varies by age, gender and race/ethnicity.

More importantly, higher-income groups are catching up with the poorest sector of the population. If soft drinks are the big culprit here, why not ban them for everyone?

We all know the answer. That’s why Bloomberg chose to limit his new initiative to those with the least political power — and to keep the issue out of the legislature, where the soft drink industry, its allies and influential nutrition policy experts could probably quash it.

If he wants to run an experiment, he’s got fairer and more promising alternatives. How about boosting food stamp benefits to see if recipients buy more fresh fruits and vegetables when they can afford them?

Between the Rock and the Hard Place on the Child Nutrition Bill

September 30, 2010

The New York Times has come out in favor of the Senate’s bill to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. It acknowledges that the House bill is considerably better — in part because it doesn’t make further cuts in the food stamp program to help offset the costs.

But, it says, “effective lawmakers know when it makes sense to stand and fight for principle and when the time comes to accept a decent compromise.” And that time for the House is now because unless it passes the Senate bill as-is, there won’t be a reauthorized Child Nutrition Act this year.

What it doesn’t say is that any expansion of the Child Nutrition Act could be up against more formidable barriers next year. What’s the hope for new spending on child hunger when Congressman John Boehner, possibly the next House Speaker, wants to roll back federal spending (except for defense, veterans and seniors) to the 2008 level?

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seems to be of the mind that the administration ought to accept a bill that, in some manner, addresses the general priorities he sketched back in February. “What we don’t want to do,” he recently said, “is compromise what we can get today for what may or may not be available in 2013.”

Unclear whether the pay-for troubles him. After all, it originated in the White House, though not as an offset for the Child Nutrition Act. Certainly seems not to be troubling the First Lady.

Some major advocacy organizations are apparently also looking at the clock — and the elections polls. For example, Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, now says the Senate bill is “terrific.” She’d earlier praised the stronger House bill as the best she’d ever seen.

Echoing Senator Blanche Lincoln, the primary author of the Senate bill, Wootan argues that if Congress doesn’t use food stamps to pay for it, it will use the money for something totally unrelated to better school meals for low-income kids. I would add better access as well.

I don’t know where to come out on this tough issue, though I know how I’m leaning.

On the one side, the House has had more than two months to come up with an offset package for its reauthorization bill and has thus far produced nothing — or at any rate, nothing final enough to be made public.

The Child Nutrition Act will technically expire at the end of the month. The House will recess then, and it will face must-do appropriations tasks when it reconvenes in November, as will the Senate. So if it doesn’t do something PDQ, we’re likely to have another extension of the current legislation.

Even if the Democrats retain control, passing the stronger House bill will be an uphill battle next year. And though the Senate bill falls short of what’s needed to make even a majority of children “healthy and hunger-free,” it’s considerably better than what we’ve got now.

On the other side, I’ve no doubt that the Food Research and Action Center is right when it says that using food stamp benefits to pay for the child nutrition bill “will make children hungrier.” And, as I’ve previously noted, food stamps aren’t for children only. The Senate bill will take food out of the mouths of poor adults too.

Looking beyond the hunger issues, the new Census poverty/income report tells us that 2.2 million fewer people would have been counted as poor if it had factored in the cash value of food stamps.

Mark Zandi, the Chief Economist at Moody’s Analytics, recently reconfirmed his firm’s earlier finding that food stamps deliver more “bang for the buck” than any other form of stimulus considered. Do we believe that the economy will improve so much in the next two years that a cutback in consumer demand won’t matter?

Maybe Lincoln and Wootan are right. If Congress doesn’t use the $2.2 billion food stamp reduction for the Child Nutrition bill, it will use it for something else.

But, as we’ve already seen, dipping into the food stamp budget can become as habit forming as, well, eating. If Congress does it twice, won’t it just be that much easier to do it again?