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.

No Kids, No Food Stamps for Jobless Workers in New House GOP SNAP Plan

August 12, 2013

Perhaps you’ve seen the news by now. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is masterminding a new SNAP (food stamp) proposal that’s supposed to cut the program by around $40 billion over the next 10 years. This is nearly twice as much as the version in the Farm Bill that went down to defeat in mid-June.

The Cantor version has everything that was in that, including amendments added before the final vote.

One of them, widely thought to have sealed the Farm Bill’s fate, established a new, deceptively-characterized work requirement option for states that was actually an incentive for them to end benefits for as many participants as possible.

Now Cantor wants to insert another work requirement provision that he reportedly tried to get into the Farm Bill from the outset. This one would eliminate waivers from a work requirement that’s been part of SNAP since Congress ended welfare as we knew it.

As I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can ordinarily get SNAP benefits for only three months in any three-year period unless they’re working 20 hours a week or participating, for the same amount of time, in an education and training or a workfare program, i.e., working for no pay in exchange for their benefits.

But for (I hope) obvious reasons, states can get waivers from the ABAWD requirements for areas where the unemployment rate is extraordinarily high or the U.S. Department of Agriculture determines there are “insufficient jobs” available.

All but a few states and the District of Columbia still have such waivers for at least some of their jurisdictions, according to the latest (now outdated) notice posted by USDA.

Cantor and the colleagues he’s working with apparently want to blow away the waiver option — whether states have E&T and/or workfare slots for affected ABAWDs or not.

A memo the Congressional Research Service prepared for Cantor indicates that about 3.9 million SNAP recipients might be affected, though CRS couldn’t come up with a hard number.

This is a small fraction of all recipients — 9.7% in the (also now outdated) CRS estimates. But they’re among the poorest, according to a very angry response by Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Their average income, he says, is just 22% of the federal poverty line — about $2,528 a year if they’re single, $3,412 if they’re part of a two-member household.

And because of our propensity to disadvantage the childless, they’re ineligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — a source of some, though hardly enough cash assistance. Also, Greenstein adds, for cash assistance from state and local programs.

One of the drafters, Congressman Marlin Stutzman, says, “Most people would agree that if you are an able bodied adult without any kids, you should find your way off food stamps.”

But that’s not what we’re looking at here. States have no obligation to provide ABAWDs with education, training or on-the-job work experience. Only a few do — and only five to all who’d otherwise lose their benefits.

And these folks may be trying as hard as they can to find their way off food stamps. The jobs just aren’t there.

At this point, there are still three job seekers for every job available. And the ABAWDs, by and large, could qualify for only those on the low-skill end, Greenstein says.

Now, in one sense, all this seems a not-to-worry. Congressman Frank Lucas, the obviously unhappy chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, remarks on the $16.5 billion or so gap between the SNAP cut in the Senate Farm Bill and the cuts the House rejected.

He hopes for “guidance on high” — apparently referring to the White House, though a House-Senate compromise on a new Farm Bill may take higher guidance than that.

What is a to-worry is that we’re heading toward an even more complex crisis than the imminent end of spending authority for a vast number of government programs, plus the need to keep the government from defaulting on its debts.

Though SNAP won’t expire, other parts of the current Farm Bill will. And there are good reasons to believe the Senate may not pass another one-year extension.

Good reasons to believe the House won’t either — unless Speaker John Boehner allows a vote on a bill that his caucus won’t support.

Beyond this, we’re seeing another manifestation of the right-wing Republicans’ effort to gut safety net programs under the guise of redressing debilitating — and deficit-exploding — dependency.

And doing this by fostering the notion that poor people don’t want to work — but would if they got hungry enough.

Our safety net programs are far from perfect. Yet the best we can hope for is to preserve the status quo until Republicans and Democrats again agree that we, through our government, must see to the well-being of the less fortunate among us.

At this point, they can’t even agree on what the Bible teaches.

What Will Happen to Food Stamp Benefits Now?

July 17, 2013

Ever since I read that the House Republican leadership might split the Farm Bill, I’ve wondered how that strategy would play out. Last week provided only a partial answer.

As you’ve probably read, the leadership managed to get enough Republicans on board to pass a bill with everything that had been in the version that went down to defeat, except the part that includes SNAP (the food stamp program).

The Tea Party types were apparently promised a chance to work their will on the missing part. House Majority Leader (and aspiring Speaker) Eric Cantor said his caucus will “act with dispatch.”

If/when it does, we’ll surely see a product that cuts SNAP more deeply than the nearly $21 billion that didn’t satisfy the far right-wingers before.

We need to recall that the House has repeatedly passed Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plans, which would convert SNAP to an under-funded block grant. The latest would leave states with about $135 billion less over the next 10 years.

A cut this big seems unlikely, as Erik Wasson at The Hill, reports. But he reminds us that the House Agriculture Committee proposed over $33 billion less for SNAP as its share of savings to replace sequestration.

In the meantime, we have what Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow has aptly called “a very … confusing situation.”

Ordinarily, House and Senate negotiators would work out a compromise between the bills their chambers had passed. But can they negotiate when the House Farm Bill has no nutrition part at all?

Technically they can, I’m told. And, of course, they won’t have to if House Republican leaders can actually swift a nutrition bill through.

Still, it was hard to see how they’d come up with a compromise when the proposed SNAP portions were so extremely different.

Now House negotiators know that a split-the-difference compromise between those versions — or anything like — wouldn’t satisfy the Republican majority. Doubtful they could get it anyway.

Senator Stabenow said that she and her colleagues would deal with whatever the House sent over. But she’d earlier drawn a pretty clear line in the sand when it came to SNAP cuts of the sort the House Agriculture Committee had come up with.

The White House had warned that the President would veto a Farm Bill with cuts like those. It’s since said that he would veto the amputated Farm Bill the House passed — in part because it fails to reauthorize the nutrition programs.

So much for a compromise (highly unlikely anyway) that deals only with the so-called “farm bill farm bill” and leaves the nutrition programs for another day.

I was initially inclined to think that what looks for all the world like a stalemate in the making was a good thing. “No bill is better than a bad bill,” as the saying goes. Now I’m not so sure.

Congressman Frank Lucas, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, says that liberals ought to be smiling because SNAP has thus far survived unscathed, implying that he’s far from confident of a House-Senate deal.

And, as he points out, the program is based on permanent legislation. So it won’t expire when the current Farm Bill does. But it will be only so many words on paper unless Congress funds it as part of the annual Department of Agriculture appropriations.

Zero-funding is highly improbable. But SNAP would be at high risk, as Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warned when the split solution emerged.

Basically, Republicans could say, well, the program hasn’t been reauthorized, so we can do whatever we want in the spending bill.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Association, which has its own beefs with the partial Farm Bill, thinks that Lucas hinted at this as the promised pay-off to House Republicans who’d earlier objected to the costly farm subsidies, as well as the (for them) insufficient SNAP cuts.

We’ve some clue of what might happen because SNAP was once before delinked from the rest of the programs the Farm Bill authorizes.

Back in 1996, the program was reauthorized for only two years, leaving it wide open to changes thereafter. Congress then folded new exclusions and restrictions into the same bill that gave us welfare reform, along with other provisions that reduced SNAP benefits for those still eligible.

“It took antihunger advocates years .. to claw back the benefits,” writes National Journal columnist Jerry Hagstrom. And unless I’m mistaken, they’re not all clawed back yet.

Some Congress-watchers think the whole House strategy will fall apart — unless, of course, its aim was simply to show that Boehner could get some sort of Farm Bill passed.

Unlike SNAP, the farm subsidies aren’t all permanent. They’ll expire unless Congress passes — and the President signs — a new Farm Bill by September 30.

Others will revert to the law that originally created them. Remember last year’s milk price scare?

So we may be looking at another Farm Bill extension — a good thing for the millions of low-income people who rely on SNAP to stave off hunger, but a fragile reprieve.

What’s sad is that our policymakers should have strengthened SNAP as part of the Farm Bill.

The Food Research and Action Center had a modest agenda. In a better world, we’d probably have seen its earlier recommendation that the basis for calculating SNAP benefits be changed so that families could afford to eat healthfully — and without running short at month’s end.

Now a Farm Bill that leaves SNAP as-is would be a significant victory. And even that seems a lot to hope for.

UPDATE: Shortly after I published this, I learned that Congressman Lucas had said he would not press for formal negotiations with Senate counterparts until the House had dealt with SNAP. He’d like to produce “some kind of consensus bill” within the next several weeks. Doesn’t sound hopeful.

House Republicans Doom Farm Bill With Extremist SNAP Amendment

June 24, 2013

I could hardly contain myself last Thursday when tweets started announcing the defeat of the proposed House Farm Bill.

Seems that too many Republicans choked on the price tag. Even the 24 Democrats who voted in favor — SNAP (food stamp)  provisions notwithstanding — couldn’t make up for those defectors.

Big blame game, of course. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) blames the Democrats for “putting partisanship over progress,” though the bill could have passed with no Democratic votes at all if his fractious colleagues had followed their leaders.

Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Congressman Collin Peterson (D-MN), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, blame the Republicans for making the bill the Committee passed so much worse that Democrats who’d planned to vote for it wouldn’t.

The received wisdom seems to be that, for them, the final straw was an amendment sponsored by Congressman Steve Southerland (R-FL), which the House passed shortly before the final vote.

It’s been widely reported as establishing new, optional work requirements for SNAP recipients. This makes the amendment sound far more reasonable than it was.

First off, we need to understand that SNAP already has work requirements.

As I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can get benefits for only three weeks in any three-year period unless they’re working at least 20 hours a week or putting as much time into a job training or subsidized work program.

The law, however, makes reasonable exceptions. States may gain waivers from these requirements for ABAWDs who live in areas where the unemployment rate is very high or the U.S. Department of Agriculture determines there are “insufficient jobs” available.

And, with some exceptions, all working-age food stamp recipients who aren’t already employed must apply for work at the local employment office, participate in a job training program if they’re told to and accept any suitable job offer.

At the same time, it would have allowed states to establish work requirements for most adult SNAP applicants and recipients. Only a few, very limited exemptions mandated.

States could thus have imposed their work requirements on parents with very young children, others without child care and even some people too disabled to work, including childless adults so severely disabled as to qualify for federal disability benefits.

They would have had to impose the already-existing work requirements on all ABAWDs because the amendment voided waivers to protect those in labor markets where jobs are extremely scarce.

But the amendment provided no funds for job training programs. And states wouldn’t have had to come up with their own money to provide training and other employment assistance to everyone their work requirements covered.

All they’d have had to do was condition SNAP benefits on work or participation in a work preparation program for at least 20 hours a week — and provide some sort of work activity or the equivalent for some recipients and/or applicants.

Failure to comply with the work requirements, even if no training slots were available, could have caused an entire family to lose its benefits.

Well, you might wonder, why would any state do such a thing. States aren’t under pressure to cut their caseloads, as they are with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Because the amendment allowed them to keep half the money they saved the federal government by reducing SNAP spending — and to use it however they chose, e.g., to offset the costs of tax cuts.

In short, the amendment wasn’t, as Cantor claimed, giving states the “flexibility [to] encourage self-sufficiency by increasing workforce participation.”

It was giving them an incentive to deny SNAP benefits to as many hard-up people as possible, without regard for the greater hardships they’d suffer.

“One of the most extreme SNAP amendments to be offered in the program’s history,” blogged Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Bob Greenstein, who’s been actively involved with food stamp/SNAP policies for 40 years now.

Greenstein and his team deserve a lot of credit for the analyses and shoe-leather work that helped persuade most Democrats — maybe even a few Republicans — to vote against a bad Farm Bill made even worse.

So do many other advocacy organizations and, I’m told, grassroots constituents, who made literally thousands of calls to their Representatives.

No one knows what will happen next. But something will have to happen because the extension that’s kept the current Farm Bill operative will expire at the end of September.

So a hard-fought battle has been won, but not the war.

NOTE: I have updated this post to eliminate an erroneous statement about funding for SNAP Education and Training Services. The proposed Farm Bill actually extended an $11 billion cut that was part of the fiscal cliff deal.