Not Such Golden Years for Many Older Americans Because Hunger Stalks

June 13, 2016

I learned only belatedly that last month was Older Americans Month — an after-the-fact answer to why my social media accounts had so many links to posts, feature stories and the like about seniors.

We who’ve entered our supposedly golden years are, as a whole, better off than younger people, thanks mainly to Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare. But substantial numbers of us suffer hardships of various sorts. And in some cases, public programs don’t serve us as well as they could.

As followers know, I’m passionate about food. So I’ll deal here with what public programs do — and don’t — to ensure that all seniors have enough of it and of the right kinds for lives as healthy as we older folks can expect.

Seniors at Risk of Hunger, Despite SNAP

Nearly 9% of households with at least one elderly member were food insecure in 2014. These, as you probably know, were households that couldn’t always afford enough food for everyone to eat healthfully.

Elderly people living alone had a slightly higher rate of food insecurity. And 3.8% of them — about 480,000 — didn’t always have enough to eat, healthful or otherwise.

The Food Research and Action Center views such evident struggles with hunger as a symptom of “senior SNAP gaps” — gaps state agencies and community-based organizations can partially close.

Agencies, for example, can make the application process simpler by, among other things, replacing an extremely burdensome requirement to document medical expenses with a standard excess medical deduction.

Both they and community-based organizations can do targeted outreach to seniors who probably could receive SNAP benefits, but haven’t applied. We’ve long known various reasons for this that outreach can address.

Seniors don’t know they’re eligible, for example. They’d feel ashamed to receive a welfare benefit. Or they believe (wrongly) that they’d be effectively taking food away from someone needier.

But this is far from the whole story, as a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis shows. Elderly people living alone — as the vast majority of those in SNAP do — received, on average, $119 a month in 2012-13.

That translates into about $1.30 per meal — yet another sign that SNAP benefits are too low. Too low for anyone, but for some seniors especially because they can’t stretch their benefits as the food plan USDA uses to set them assumes.

They may, for example, not have ready access to a full-service grocery store — and even more likely, not a form of transportation that would enable them to stock up on food for a week, let alone buy more of what’s on sale.

They may not have either the kitchen facilities or the capacities to prepare their meals from scratch either. But neither they nor anyone else can use SNAP benefits for carryout meals. And microwaveable meals are obviously budget-busters.

USDA cited the age-related challenges in its fact sheet for last year’s Older Americans Month. Yet only two initiatives it announced then addressed problems inherent in the food plan — both pilots, including one I’ve celebrated before.

It would perhaps enable more seniors — and people with disabilities, regardless of age — to use their SNAP benefits for home-delivered groceries. But the benefits would still reflect unrealistic assumptions.

Hunger Not Only Because of SNAP Gaps

Some seniors, of course, can’t get out and about at all — or cook food delivered to them, whether through the SNAP purchasing and delivery option or by some well-meaning relative or friend.

Meals on Wheels enables them to eat, though generally not every day, my Googling around suggests. Those who can get out and about can get meals at a community center, church or some other facility that has them eating together.

The Older Americans Act is a major source of funding for both. Congress recently reauthorized it, with some improvements in the meals portion.

That, however, doesn’t ensure any particular level of funding for nutrition assistance — or any other service state agencies can use their OAA share for. The programs get whatever Congress decides in any given year.

So they took a hit when the Budget Control Act required across-the-board spending cuts. Congress has reportedly restored what the nutrition programs lost. But they’ve gotten no increase in the past two years.

Not surprising then that communities still report waiting lists for Meals on Wheels. A genuine risk of malnutrition, it seems — and a foregone opportunity to reduce other health risks.

A recent study of that fine control-group kind found that daily home-delivered meals improved seniors’ mental health and sense of well-being more than frozen foods delivered weekly.

The Meals on Wheels group also reported falling less, suggesting potential cost-savings beyond those that simply providing enough to eat would achieve.

Further savings, of course, insofar as home-delivered meals can enable seniors to age in place, as most of us want to, rather than moving to a nursing home — at a cost so high that all but the wealthiest (or best-insured) would ultimately have to rely on Medicaid.

As more of us live longer and the costs of feeding us rise, the OAA nutrition programs will need more money to remain an effective part of the food safety net.

This is also true for other public programs that help feed low-income seniors — the Child and Adult Care Food Program, for example. The meals and snacks it subsidizes don’t make much of a dent in senior hunger — only 120,000 or so adults served and not all of them elderly.

A piece of the food safety net nonetheless — and one I would think already needs more money, given the reimbursement rates.

The bottom line here is the bottom line. Food insecurity and hunger — among seniors, children and everyone in between — is a problem Congress can solve. But it can’t without shortchanging other basic needs until it puts a higher priority on them than on reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone.

Down from the soapbox now so that I, among the fortunate, can go fix dinner. But I’ll climb back on it to take up housing — another basis need that even more seniors can’t afford.


DC Tops All States For Family Food Hardship Rate

September 13, 2011

Perhaps you’ve read by now that more than one in three D.C. households with children — 37.4% in fact — suffered from food hardship during the past two years. In other words, the adults in these households couldn’t always afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families.

This is one of many figures in the Food Research and Action Center’s followup analysis of survey data Gallup collected during 2009-10.

Like the analysis I wrote about back in January, it breaks out food hardship by state, Congressional district and metropolitan statistical area, i.e., each of the urban-centered geographical areas the federal government uses for statistical purposes.

The difference is that the new analysis also includes break-outs for households with children and households without. This makes a big difference for the District, as it does nationwide.

Looking at household food hardship rates overall puts the District midway between states with the highest and the lowest. Ranking is nearly the same for households without children. But for households with children, the District’s food hardship rate is higher than any state’s.

One might say this is an apples and oranges comparison because the District is only a city — different, in relevant respects, from even small states. More sensible perhaps to focus on how the District stacks up among Congressional districts.

Not much better. Food hardship rates for households with children were higher in only nine Congressional districts and at least a full percent higher in only five.

How, I wonder, can we account for this?

It’s certainly the case that the District has an unusually high family poverty rate — 25.6% for households with children under 18, as compared to 16.6% nationwide.

But virtually all families below the poverty threshold are eligible for food stamps. And the District has achieved recognition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its success in getting its residents into the food stamp program.

Could it be that food stamp benefits aren’t high enough to pay for a full month’s worth of food for any entire family? I’ve thought so for some time. FRAC as well.

We’ve got some District-specific evidence now in Feeding America’s recent Map the Meal Gap report, which shows that the actual cost of the meal plan USDA uses as the basis for food stamps is considerably higher here than in the nation as a whole.

But now we’re looking only at households with children. Many of them poor enough to be at risk of food hardship don’t have to rely solely on food stamps to feed themselves as their children.

Mothers with young children may get coupons for certain additional food purchases from WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

Some of those younger children may also get free meals and/or snacks in programs like Head Start and child care centers.

School-age children can get free or reduced-price school meals and possibly also after-school snacks or suppers. During summers, meals for all children are free.

Needless to say, the more meals children get in these programs, the fewer the family food budget has to cover.

The issue seems to boil down to this: Are the programs not reaching enough low-income families or are they just not enough to offset food shortages in the home?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time prowling around the Web and can’t find an answer. May provide some answers in a followup posting.

Question marks notwithstanding, we’ve got ample evidence that far too many District residents have sometimes gone hungry. Probably still do.

We’ve got a strong network of nonprofits that serve meals to poor people or give them foods they can prepare at home. We’ve got organizations like DC Hunger Solutions and its partners that strive to increase participation in federally-funded free and reduced-price meals programs.

We’ve got a local government that’s concerned about hunger and nutrition, though follow-through sometimes falls short.

But hunger is not a problem the District can solve on its own. We need more federal funding for nutrition assistance programs — and for other anti-poverty programs as well.

With Congress riveted on deeper spending cuts, the best hope is that we don’t get less.

DC Families Missing Out On Food Stamp Benefits

October 2, 2009

The Food Research and Action Center has just released a report on participation in SNAP (the food stamp program) in 24 large urban areas, including Washington, D.C. It’s a mixed message–both for the cities as a whole and for the District.

On the positive side, the food stamp program is providing crucial nutrition assistance to a very large number of low-income people in these urban areas–about 7.1 million as of May 2009. Of these, somewhat more than 99,000 live in D.C.

Not surprisingly, caseloads have increased dramatically. Between May 2008 and May 2009, the total U.S. caseload increased by 21%–more than 5.9 million people. Growth in the District’s caseload was substantial, but smaller–14.5% or about 12,540 people.

Yet a very large number of individuals and families who could receive food stamps aren’t getting them. FRAC estimates 2007 participation in the surveyed cities combined at 67%–nearly the same as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nationwide estimate for the year.

What this means is that nearly 2.8 million big-city residents were missing out on a benefit they probably needed. And the cities were missing out on nearly $1.7 billion in federal funds that could have supported their local economies.

These overall figures mask large differences among the cities. In San Diego, the participation rate was only 35%, while in Philadelphia it was 93%, with Detroit close behind at 92%.

The District’s participation rate was 82%–better than all but six of the surveyed cities. But looked at another way, about 18,500 people missed out on nutrition assistance they were entitled to. And the District missed out on nearly $10.3 million in unclaimed benefits. That translates into an estimated $18.9 million in lost economic activity.

There’s no simple remedy for the participation gap because there are many reasons eligible people don’t enroll in the food stamp program. High on the list are:

  • Lack of awareness they’d be eligible–or that they’re still eligible. (There’s apparently a fairly common belief that food stamps, like TANF benefits, are time-limited.)
  • An unfounded by understandable concern that participation would jeopardize their immigration status.
  • The length and complexity of applications for the program, combined with extensive documentation and verification requirements.
  • Language barriers–I’m guessing even for people with some command of English.
  • The costs of enrollment–transportation to food stamp offices, fees for required documents, lost wages because time has to be taken off from work, etc.
  • Long waits for appointments and/or for certification–these undoubtedly growing as caseloads rise.
  • Re-certification requirements, which in some areas mean frequent trips back to the office with more documentation.
  • Benefits too low to offset the costs and hassle of the application/re-certification process.
  • Perceptions that food stamp recipients are looked down on and/or that there’s a stigma attached to receiving any government assistance.

So state and local government officials will need to look carefully at their own populations, their program requirements, applications and intake process and also their outreach efforts. They’ve got a lot to gain and so do a great many low-income people who are struggling to feed themselves and their children.

D.C. Hunger Solution’s terrific guide to getting food suggests the District is doing a lot of the right things. But it’s obviously got more work to do–and a lot to gain from the effort.

Hope for the Hungry

February 8, 2009

Last Friday, the Center for American Progress hosted a very interesting panel on hunger in America. Much discussion of the problem and what the federal government should do. But, for me, the biggest insight was the optimism the panelists shared.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, led off with two great examples.

#1. In the 1800’s, yellow fever, cholera and malaria were enormous public health problems. Many thousands of Americans died of these diseases every year. But they were viewed as just one of those unfortunate facts of life. Then the federal government got involved, and it solved the problem. How many of us, Berg asked, knew anyone in this country who had died of any of these diseases? One hand raised.

#2. In the 1930’s, a hunger investigation team went into the backwaters of the deep South. They found many people, mostly children, literally starving to death–the kind of thing we now associate with Somalia and other deeply-troubled parts of Africa. Then the federal government got involved–first with a temporary food stamp program and, more recently, with the “permanent” program, plus other nutrition assistance programs like WIC and free in-school meals.

There are still far too many “food insecure” people in the U.S.–people who sometimes don’t have enough to eat or fear they won’t. But death from starvation is very rare.  In fact, Berg said, we almost eliminated hunger in the 1970’s–before the federal government started backpedaling.

What these examples mean is that hunger in America is a problem we can solve. It won’t be politically easy because it will involve significant public investments–not only in food assistance programs, but in other programs to ensure that everyone can afford sufficient, nutritious food. But it’s nowhere near so complex (or costly) as, say, global warming.

What’s needed is the political will to do it. The food stamps benefit boost in the economic recovery package is a good first step. But it must be converted to a permanent, adequate increase.

Congress will have other opportunities when it takes up the reauthorization of child nutrition programs this spring. But that’s a subject for another posting.