Congress Cuts TANF Funding To Struggling States

December 29, 2010

About four weeks ago, Congress extended the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program till the end of this fiscal year.

I breathed a sigh of relief because technically TANF had already expired. So if Congress hadn’t acted, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services couldn’t have spent one more thin dime in support of states’ TANF programs.

Turns out I should have sighed differently. Because, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, the reauthorizing legislation will mean nearly $3 billion less in federal funding for TANF this fiscal year.

States will get, on average, 15% less than in Fiscal Years 2009-10. Twenty-four states will probably lose more. The District of Columbia will lose an estimated 16% — about $92 million.

These figures include loss of the funds states received from the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund. Congress had already let this temporary program expire by the time it acted on the basic reauthorizing legislation.

It could have retroactively extended the program, but decided instead to save a couple of billion dollars. Or rather, Republicans in the Senate decided. Gotta attack that deficit, you know — except when the issue is tax cuts.

States will incur further losses due to a cutback in the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriation for the regular TANF Contingency Fund. This fund has been part of TANF ever since Congress created the program. Basically, it provides a pool of money states can claim when their costs increase during economic downturns.

Congress had appropriated $506 million for the Contingency Fund as part of the continuing resolution it passed in September, i.e., its short-term substitute for the regular appropriations it hadn’t passed. The reauthorizing legislation took back all the funds HHS hadn’t already committed.

At the same time, it took a whack at supplemental grants that certain states have always received to compensate for inequities in the statutory block grant funding formula.

It extended these grants only through June instead of for the whole fiscal year and without a separate line item. So they have to be funded out of the same pot as the contingency fund.

HHS has already committed well over half the appropriate funds to states with contingency claims. This means that states entitled to supplemental grants will get only two-thirds of what they’ve previously received. These states include some of the poorest and some with extraordinarily high unemployment rates, e.g., Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and Florida.

Bottom line is that most states and the District will have no federal funding beyond the basic block grant for the remainder of this fiscal year. And they’re hardly prepared to fill in with their own funds.

CBPP tells us that at least 46 states have already closed Fiscal Year 2011 budget gaps totaling $130 billion. Like the District, 11 have already identified mid-year gaps. These, I take it, do not factor in the newest losses in federal TANF funding.

No jurisdiction will have anything close to what it needs to provide a reasonable level of cash assistance, meaningful job training and other supports for the rising number of families that qualify under its existing rules.

At the very least, we can expect long-term program deficiencies to continue. But cuts of one sort or another are likely.

As many of you know, the District has decided to phase out benefits for poor families that haven’t achieved sustained self-sufficiency by the end of five years in its TANF program.

Some states have taken similar and even more drastic actions. For example:

  • South Carolina has decided to cut all cash benefits by 20%, leaving a family of three with a maximum of $216 per month.
  • Washington state will reduce cash income for single-parent TANF families, i.e., a large majority of all TANF families, by holding on to the portion of child support it’s been passing through to them.
  • California has, at least temporarily, eliminated child care subsidies, effectively denying many TANF “graduates” the ability to continue working.

These, I fear, are portents of things to come — unless Congress does an about-face when it gets down to the business of actually reauthorizing TANF. If you think that’s likely, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

The federal “partner” has scrimped on what should be its share of TANF funding for a long time. But it’s never before failed to fully fund the supplemental grants.

It’s never before cut off appropriated funds to help states cope with rising family poverty during hard economic times. Indeed, it established the Emergency Contingency Fund specifically to keep assistance flowing when the regular Contingency Fund ran dry.

Now states and the District are left to preserve the frayed safety net when they’re least able to do so.


What’s In The Child Nutrition Bill For Hungry Kids?

June 2, 2010

We all know by now–or certainly should–that far too many children in this wealthy country simply don’t get enough to eat

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2008-9 food security report, 1.1 million children were living in households where they and/or their siblings sometimes had a  skimpy meal or no meal at all because their parents couldn’t afford to buy enough food.

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s bill to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act seeks to reduce child hunger. It goes at this through various measures to expand access to subsidized meal programs.

For school meal programs, the bill would simplify the process that allows schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to all students. These areas, the Committee report says, enroll more than 5 million children–over 10% of the public school population. The current, burdensome process may deter some schools from claiming “community eligibility.” So low-income children may be left out because their parents don’t know free meals are available or are overwhelmed by the paperwork.

The bill would also make foster children automatically eligible for free meals and do a couple of things to promote “direct certification” for other low-income children. At this point, schools must certify free-meal eligibility for children whose parents receive food stamps. They may also directly certify children whose families participate in TANF or the program that distributes food on Indian reservations. The bill would provide bonuses to school districts that adopt these options.

It would also allow school districts to directly certify children covered by Medicaid, but only selectively. In the 2012-13 school year, USDA would designate districts representing 2.5% of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Additional districts would be added annually, at the same rate, up to a total of 10% of low-income children. The rationale for this cap is not explained.

The bill does more than increase access to in-school meals. It would allow eligible after-school programs in all states to receive reimbursements for a full meal, rather than only a snack. At this point, programs in only 13 states and the District of Columbia can get reimbursed for a full meal. The expansion would go a long way toward ensuring that low-income children get three well-balanced meals a day–at least, during days when school is in session.

So far as I can see, summer meals get short shrift. Participation in them is egregiously low, compared to participation in school lunch programs. Indeed, the Food Research and Action Center reports that only 17.3% of the children who ate free or reduced-price school lunches during the 2007-8 school year then participated in a summer meal program. And not all programs operated all summer long.

To expand access, the bill would require school food administrators to help nonprofits that operate summer meals programs with outreach to families. Period.

But, of course, changing the standards that now restrict reimbursements for summer meals to programs in high-poverty communities would increase the federal government’s costs. So would funding transportation in rural areas, where needy children may live far from summer meal sites.

And then, as with in-school meals, there’s the issue of reimbursement rates. Somewhat higher than rates for school breakfasts and lunches. But, as FRAC reports, a USDA survey found that 73% of sponsors expected to lose money operating their summer meal programs. This may partially explain why the number of meals served last August was substantially lower than the number served in June and July.

As I wrote last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s bill would provide $4.5 billion over 10 years for all the programs included in the Child Nutrition Act. The Committee Chair’s framework indicates that $1.2 billion of the total would be for “a path to end child hunger.” Not to eliminate it, as President Obama promised. But to take us down the road apiece.

Is this really the best we can do?

NOTE: I apparently skipped over a section of the bill. It would actually do more to expand access to summer meal programs than require school food administrators to help with outreach. It would also authorize $20 million in competitive grants for “activities that improve and encourage sponsor retention.” This translates into about $5 million a year for Fiscal Years 2011-15. This doesn’t alter my view that the bill fails to address the significant barriers to access.

Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization Moves Ahead

May 27, 2010

In early May, the Senate Agriculture Committee issued its report on the bill it had unanimously approved to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. This put the bill on the Senate general calendar, ready for debate by the full Senate whenever Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decides it’s time.

At this point, there’s no companion bill in the House. So the Senate bill is likely to become the basis for whatever Congress ultimately passes. That’s not a bad thing because there’s a lot to like in the bill. Also some things not to like.

On the positive side, Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln (D-NE) and her colleagues seem to have their minds around the top priorities. We see this in the bill title–The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

I’ll focus on the “healthy” part here and deal with the”hunger-free” part in a subsequent posting.

Basically, the bill aims to improve the nutrition quality of meals and snacks children get in school and in daycare and after-school programs. A couple of big initiatives here.

First, the bill would authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to establish standards for all foods and beverages sold on school campuses, including those in vending machines, snack bars and the a la carte lines that give kids an alternative to regular cafeteria meals.

So-called competitive foods are available at virtually all high schools and high percentages of middle and elementary schools too. At this point, they’re primarily high-fat/high-sugar options that appeal to kids. So they undermine whatever efforts schools are making to improve the nutritional value of the regular meals they serve. Who’s going to go to the cafeteria for broccoli and beans when they can buy a burger with a side of fries?

The bill would also require the Secretary to issue new school meal nutrition standards based on recommendations developed by the Institute of Medicine. These call for significant changes–more fruits, more vegetables (dark green and orange, with a limit on starchy), whole grains, 1% or fat-free milk and a maximum as well as a minimum number of calories.

As I’ve commented before, meals like these will certainly cost more than what schools can–and, in many cases, do–serve now. So the Agriculture Committee would give school districts that comply with the new regulations an additional 6 cents per lunch, with an annual adjustment for inflation.

Reality check. The current free lunch reimbursement rate is $2.70, up 2 cents from the 2008-9 school year. This rate is only for schools where 60% or more of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

The School Nutrition Association says that the 2008-9 average cost of preparing and serving a school lunch in compliance with current USDA nutrition standards was $2.92 cents and that costs have continued to rise since then. The Institute of Medicine estimated that its recommendations would increase food costs by 4% to 9%. Do the math.

The bill would also require child and adult care programs to serve meals based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans–the source for the IOM school meal recommendations. More cost increases here, I suspect. But no mention of a boost in reimbursement rates.

There’s more in the bill, even in just this category, e.g., an ongoing funding stream for school gardens, linkages to local food sources and other Farm to School activities, especially in schools with high proportions of low-income students.

But I’ll cut to the chase. What’s not to like is the funding. First, it’s too stingy to achieve its worthy objectives. Total funding would be $4.5 billion over 10 years–less than half of what President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget proposes. Hence, I suppose the measly 6 cents more for lunches.

Second, the bill would offset the new spending in part by gutting the SNAP/food stamp nutrition education program. If this isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul, I don’t know what is. We want children to eat more healthfully–and to reduce the child obesity rate. So we cut support for efforts to help their parents choose a well-balanced selection of foods and encourage their kids to be active.

The Committee’s not allowed to grab funding outside its jurisdiction. So it’s possible that alternative and more generous funding will be found.

But concerns incorporated in the Committee report and outcries from farming and environmental interests suggest that more attention will be paid to another offset, which would level-fund EQIP (the Environmental Quality Incentives Program).

Rethinking No Child Left Behind

April 15, 2010

Eight years ago, the Bush administration and Congress set out to revolutionize public elementary and secondary education.

The lever was Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act–the single largest source of federal funding for public schools. The trigger was the persistent gap between the academic performance of white, relatively well-off students and the rest, i.e., racial and ethnic minorities,  students from very low-income families and students whose native language wasn’t English. Students with disabilities were on the low side of the gap too.

As the reauthorized Title I proclaimed, no child was to be left behind. Every state would have to test all children annually in reading and math, using its own challenging standards. And every school would be assessed according to whether every student subgroup made adequate year progress toward full proficiency.

Schools that persistently failed to demonstrate AYP for all subgroups would be subject to what amount to sanctions. Parents could send their children to other schools, thus depleting the failing school’s funds. Teachers could be fired, principals replaced, the school converted to a charter school or put into the hands of an outside entity. One way or another, the responsible local education agency had to do something drastic.

People I knew who’d been active in the civil rights movement were very high on No Child Left Behind because they thought it would, at long last, get schools to focus on the academic deficits of racial minorities.

A much broader spectrum of children’s advocates, education experts and business leaders liked it because it promised academic rigor, accountability, more state flexibility, parental involvement and targeted research-based corrective actions. Oh yes, and more federal funding.

We all know what happened. Schools narrowed curricula to focus on instruction in reading and math. Teachers “taught to the test.” Some states relaxed their standards to cool out public concern about bad scores. Prospects of sanctions encouraged administrators to open the exit door for low-achievers.

What with these various changes, scores on state test scores did improve. Scores on the more reliable National Assessment of Educational Progress improved somewhat as well. But race/ethnicity gaps remained nearly as great as before. And little wonder.

As Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute says, No Child was based on the view that schools alone could overcome deep-seated social and economic disadvantages and that they hadn’t because teachers just didn’t try hard enough.

It also placed almost exclusive emphasis on two basic skill areas, inadvertently motivating schools to eliminate courses that can engage a broader group of students in the learning enterprise–art, music, social studies, hands-on science, etc. If it didn’t discourage potential gifted teachers from entering the profession, it surely gave those who did an incentive to avoid placements in struggling schools or get out as soon as they could.

Fast forward to 2010. Reauthorization of No Child seems to be back on the agenda–two years after neither the House nor the Senate could agree on a bill. And some interesting things are happening.

On of the most interesting to me is an about-face by Diane Ravitch, one of the architects of the original No Child Left Behind. She’s now published a book tellingly titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

Under the current system, she says, we’re measuring what we can–not what matters most. As a result we’ve got a much less holistic approach to education than other successful nations.

Other experts in education and related policy areas have produced what they characterize as a broader, bolder approach to education. The premise here is that schools alone can’t close achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status. We need an expanded concept of education that recognizes the importance of learning before and outside the classroom, combined with a focus on “the whole person” instead of just basic academic skills and a narrow definition of cognitive growth.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is aware of the flaws in No Child. He was, in fact, one of the original co-signers of the broader, bolder approach.

But his remarks on reauthorization suggest he’s now more focused on tougher, broader standards, better tests and greater flexibility for state and local education agencies than in solutions to challenges that are well beyond of purview of public elementary and secondary education systems.

The administration’s priorities are by no means inconsistent with the broader, bolder approach. But I seriously doubt that tweaking No Child will come close to fulfilling the promise in its name.

The administration would need to fold it into a more expansive, integrated approach to child well-being–and to give up the view that carrots and sticks will eliminate social and economic problems that date back to pre-civil rights days.

USDA Announces Priorities For Child Nutrition Act

February 22, 2010

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently held a conference call to lay out the administration’s priorities for reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Broad brush, little detail. But it’s clear they’ve got their mind around the issues and will be seeking some important changes.

We’re dealing with twin problems, Vilsack said. On the one hand, about 16.5 million children live in households that can’t always afford a nutritious diet. In fact, more than 500,000 simply don’t get enough to eat. On the other hand, a third of all children are overweight or obese.

So what does the administration propose?

  • “Better access to resources, i.e., “more creative and innovative” processes for enrolling children in nutrition programs. These could include automatic enrollment in school meal programs when a family is approved for food stamps and/or TANF.
  • A “robust increase” in school breakfast participation. One focus here seems to be getting more schools to offer breakfast. The Secretary mentioned reimbursement rates and providing commodities, apparently recognizing that costs are a major deterrent.
  • Improved nutritional quality. “Too much salt, sugar and fat,” the Secretary said. “Empty calories.” They’d like to “encourage” schools to improve, e.g., through funding training for food service professionals and an extension of the food service equipment grants in the economic recovery act. No mention of new nutrition standards.
  • Correct, complete information on what’s being served. The target here seems to be parents. No specific reference to nutritional values, let alone whether these would be required or only encouraged. Earlier testimony by the Secretary suggests he may be counting on parental pressure.
  • A consistent message during school time. “Message” means what foods are available in vending machines and a la carte areas. And here the Secretary did speak of standards.
  • Innovative ways to reach children on non-school days.
  • A recognition that the weight issue is also about physical activity. A reference here to the wellness policies that schools have been required to have since the Child Nutrition Act was last reauthorized. Also to USDA’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge–awards for schools that are promoting good nutrition and physical activity. In short, nothing new. But this is a tough issue in a country that prizes local control over school curricula.
  • Continued support for the Farm to School Initiative, including technological assistance so that schools accurately account for their reimbursable activities. These include, but aren’t limited to purchases from local and regional producers.

President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget includes $1 billion a year for 10 years to support reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. This would obviously cover some financial and technical support for a number of the above priorities. But I have to wonder about improved nutritional quality.

The Institute of Medicine recently recommended significant changes in school breakfast and lunch menus–more fruits, more vegetables (dark green and orange, with a limit on starchy), whole grains, a maximum as well as a minimum number of calories, thus limiting opportunities to load meals up with high-sugar/high-fat options. These changes would obviously cost more.

Rochelle Davis, Founding Director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, says that school districts are already spending, on average, 35 cents more per lunch than the maximum reimbursement they can get from USDA. In urban areas, the gap is about 70 cents per meal. At this point, schools are highly vulnerable to cutbacks–hardly in a position to absorb higher costs.

After-school snack and summer meal providers are struggling too. No point in focusing on innovative ways to expand participation if the programs can’t even sustain their current costs.

Yet of all the administration’s priorities, expanding the meal programs and improving their nutritional profiles may be the most critical–especially for low-income children. So it’s important that the reauthorizing legislation put teeth into the nutritional quality part. Equally important that it provide sufficient funding.

Vilsack mentioned the need for strong grassroots support. And that surely will be needed in these deficit-minded times.

The Healthy Schools Campaign has an online letter we can use to get those grassroots growing.

Clock Is Ticking For Unemployed Workers

February 2, 2010

As I wrote last week, a large coalition of national organizations has coalesced around a five-point job creation plan. It’s considerably more ambitious than the Jobs for Main Street Act that President Obama endorsed in his State of the Union address–let alone what the Senate reportedly is considering. But there are common elements.

One is a provision in the Jobs for Main Street Act that can’t wait until the Senate passes its jobs creation bill–an extension of the enhanced unemployment insurance benefits that were originally part of the economic stimulus package. These allow unemployed workers to continue receiving benefits for 34 weeks beyond the usual period in their state–or longer if they live in a state with a high unemployment rate. By now, most do.

Under the current law, these extended benefits will expire at the end of February. If the law isn’t reauthorized, millions of unemployed workers will have no source of income. Those who had health insurance through their employers will also lose the COBRA subsidy that’s been helping them keep that insurance.

But here’s the kicker. The Senate can’t wait until February 28 to extend them a lifeline. According to the National Employment Law Project, state UI offices will begin reprogramming their computers to end the extensions on February 19.

Due to decades of inadequate funding, most of them are running very old systems that can’t be reprogrammed quickly. So they’ve coped with the UI extensions with some creative patches. They’ll begin undoing the patches in time to have their standard programs working by March 1. Once they’ve shifted back, it could take them months to restore the quick fixes.

Meanwhile, workers who are entitled to the extended benefits won’t be getting them. These are workers who’ve been unemployed for a long time. So most will probably have exhausted whatever savings they had. This, of course, will put additional pressure on other safety net programs.

It will also cut off the flow of many millions of dollars to local businesses–grocery stores, hardware stores, rental housing companies, etc. The Economic Policy Institute says that an additional 800,000 jobs could be lost by the end of the year. No need to say what this would do to our fragile economic recovery.

NELP has a toll-free hotline that those of you who have Senators can use to light a fire under their tails–888-245-0215.

UPDATE: NELP has just announced that the Senate has to pass the UI/COBRA extension by February 12 because it won’t be in session the following week.

More Children Need In-School Breakfasts

May 14, 2009

When I was in the fourth grade, we had to make posters about healthy breakfasts. Let me just say that the view of a healthy breakfast was different back then–bacon and eggs and cereal or toast, plus juice and milk.

But the main lesson was that eating a well-rounded breakfast was good for us. That’s still true–and in more ways than they knew when I was a kid.

Far too many children don’t get a nutritious breakfast at home. Parents have to leave the house early to get to work. Children may have long commutes to school. For low-income families there’s an additional barrier–cost.

Since 1975, the federal government has funded an in-school breakfast program to give children a healthy start to their day. All children can participate if there school is part of the program, but there are special provisions for children from low-income families.

Those whose families are at or below 130% of the federal poverty line–thus eligible for food stamps–get their breakfasts free. Those whose families are above this cut-off but not above 185% of the FPL get their breakfasts at a reduced price, not to exceed 30 cents per meal.

According to the Food Research Action Center’s School Breakfast Scorecard, about 86% of schools that serve federally-subsidized lunches also participate in the school breakfast program. Yet in 2007-8, only 45.9% of low-income children who benefited from the free or reduced-price lunch program also got free or reduced-price breakfasts.

What accounts for this participation gap? Part of the answer, of course, is that 14% of schools that serve lunch still don’t offer breakfast.

Cost is probably the major reason. According to the School Nutrition Association, federal reimbursements haven’t kept pace with the rising costs of providing balanced, nutritious meals. So schools lose money on each meal they serve.

For children themselves, there seem to be a number of additional factors:

  • They don’t get to school in time to eat breakfast before classes begin.
  • There’s a stigma attached to the in-school program because it’s mostly poor children who participate.
  • Some families whose children qualify for reduced-cost–but not free–breakfasts can’t afford to pay for them.
  • Families have to apply for the program and may be deterred by the paperwork.
  • Parents don’t know about the program or understand how important breakfast is.

Child nutrition programs, incuding the school breakfast program, are up for reauthorization this year. So Congress has an immediate opportunity to expand participation in the school breakfast program. FRAC recommends:

  • Funding to support more universal breakfast programs–programs that serve free breakfasts for all children, regardless of financial need. These programs not only ensure that every child has a healthy breakfast. They also provide a framework for serving breakfasts in the classroom, thus eliminating commute time and bus schedule problems. And, of course, they eliminate the stigma of participating and all that intimidating paperwork.
  • Raising the income eligibility for free school breakfasts to 185% of the federal poverty line. Under this proposal, the reduced-price breakfast category would be eliminated–and, with it, the cost deterrent to low-income families who don’t fall below the current, very low cut-off for free school meals.
  • Providing commodities for school breakfasts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides foods for school lunches, but no extra for breakfasts. Expansion of commodity support would help schools cover the costs of breakfast and free up funds for improving nutritional quality.
  • Funding to support outreach activities. Together with other initiatives to increase access, better outreach will bring more children into the program. Schools will then be able to purchase foods in larger quantities–thus reducing cost per meal.

Will all this cost more? Of course it will–if we consider only funding for the school breakfast program. But the immediate and long-term costs of denying children the nutrition they need for health and learning are surely many times greater.