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.


New Evidence for Old Food Stamp Problem

December 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

Effects on Temporary SNAP Boost

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

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

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

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

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

End-of-the-Month Effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Root of the Problem

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

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

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

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

 

 


Brooding on My Blog’s Seventh Birthday

December 7, 2015

Yesterday was my blog’s seventh birthday. The occasion always prompts reflections, some of which I’ve shared.

I’ve spoken in the past about how things were when I launched the blog, compared to how they were when the birthday rolled round. I’ve spoken about the value of the blog as a source of discipline for learning and of relationships with advocates who inspire me — and readers who keep me going.

What’s top of mind today — and has been for awhile — grows out of the scope I carved out for the blog, but only gradually got a purchase on.

The scope is very — or one might say self-indulgently — broad, as the blog’s name indicates. It essentially licenses posts on any nexus between public policies and poverty, though as a practical matter, I’ve confined myself to the American scene.

I’ve stretched the scope as I’ve come to understand how our official poverty measure fails to do justice to the extent of economic hardship in our country.

Some of our major federal policies recognize this and so set income eligibility maximums above the federal poverty line — a simplified version of the thresholds the Census Bureau uses for the official measure.

At the same time, those income eligibility maximums vary a lot from state to state insofar as federal programs grant states flexibility.

We also see marked variations when we look at how states invest their own tax revenues in programs that provide a safety net and others that can help low-income people achieve a modicum of financial security.

States have always faced the challenges these choices reflect. They surely face them now, as they have ever since the Budget Control Act capped federal spending on non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations.

The fact that the recent budget deal temporarily lifts the caps doesn’t relieve them from the challenges because the non-defense part of the budget includes a very wide range of programs.

Congressional appropriations committees have divvied up the new, higher spending level now. And at least on the House side, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education — a major source of funds for programs that benefit low-income people — reportedly won’t get its fair share.

Highly doubtful that the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development budget will fully undo the damages to the federal housing voucher program or the capital fund that local agencies use to keep public housing units habitable.

Meanwhile, Congress will clearly do nothing now about a long-neglected piece of the federal budget that’s not subject to annual appropriations — the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant.

It’s not only the federal government’s major share of funding for states’ TANF programs. It also determines how much of their own funds they must spend to get that share.

And as I’ve written (perhaps too often), it’s never gotten a penny more than it did the year that TANF ended welfare as we knew it. This means it’s now worth about a third less in real dollars.

Which brings me to the other nexus I’ve tried to deal with, but mostly one nibble at a time. That’s the nexus between federal policies — budgets included — and related state and local policies. These too include budgets, but not budgets only.

I’ve referred to states’ TANF policies — mainly the very low cash benefits they provide. And I’ve taken a poke from time to time at some states’ Medicaid eligibility policies.

I’ve also cited states’ varying responses to federal policy choices that can enable them to enroll more low-income people in SNAP (the food stamp program) — and qualify some of them for higher benefits.

I’ve noted disparities in minimum wages, as some states raise their minimums above the federal, while others either preserve the link or have no minimum of their own at all. I haven’t noted, but probably should have how much those higher minimums vary.

These and other such differences have made me increasingly conscious of what I think of as geographic inequality. We read a lot about income inequality — and about how children’s future financial prospects hinge so much on whom they’re born to.

But how low-income people, including children fare depends a whole lot on where they live. Part of that, of course, is that some local economies offer better opportunities than others. But a major part stems from policy choices.

I know I’m not saying anything new or original here. Only taking this occasion to say how the more I learn, the more I’m disturbed by how unfair our federal-state-local system is to so many poor and near-poor people who’ve got little, if any choice of where they live.

Not saying I’d like to see all policies determined by our federal government — surely not the one we have now. Low-income people have it bad enough already. I shudder to think how much worse off the geographically fortunate would be if left to the tender mercies of the majorities in Congress.

Won’t think because I can’t bear to what would happen to all struggling people if the next election not only sustains those majorities, but puts a like-minded candidate — or a loose cannon — in the White House.

What would a ninth birthday post look like then?

 


Home-Delivered Groceries: A SNAP Solution Who’s Time Has Come

October 29, 2015

Several years go, an online fresh food order and delivery service launched a pilot in the Bronx that enabled low-income residents to use their SNAP (food stamp) benefits for purchases and have them delivered for free.

I’m told the company — FreshDirect — views the experiment as a roaring success, presumably because the profits from the additional purchases at least offset the costs.

It’s surely a model worth further trials because it promises to reduce food insecurity and improve the healthfulness of what poor and near-poor people eat.

This is perhaps especially true for some low-income seniors and people with disabilities because getting to a grocery store — and then home with bundles of groceries — poses obvious challenges for people who can’t drive or find some helpful soul to chauffeur them.

Now there’s an opportunity for nonprofits and/or government agencies to address their problem.

Food Insecurity and Hunger

About 5.4% of people in their 60s suffer from food insecurity, according to updated (but not up-to-date) figures in an analysis for the AARP Foundation. Somewhat over 3.7% more have “very low food security,” i.e., at least sometimes don’t have enough of anything to eat.

Both rates are lower than for the U.S. population as a whole. But they still mean that about one in nine seniors who haven’t reached 70 can’t always afford “enough food for an active, healthy life.”

This doesn’t mean the rest have a healthful diet, however. As the analysts note, the questions in the survey used for food insecurity focus on financial resources. For seniors, other factors may also matter, as I suggested above.

We don’t, so far as I know, have food insecurity and hunger rates for people with disabilities. The best we’ve got come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis of food insecurity among households that included a working-age adult too severely disabled for employment.

A third of them were food insecure in 2009-10. And nearly half of these included at least one member who at least sometimes went hungry.

Costs associated with disabilities help explain the extraordinarily high rates — health care and special equipment, for example, and in some cases, lower (or no) earned income by another household member because s/he had to be home to provide care.

USDA also notes other factors, e.g., insufficient Supplement Security Income and SNAP benefits. But even if SNAP benefits would cover food costs, it says, someone with a disability may face logistical challenges.

These are basically the same as those confronting seniors, who may, of course, have disabilities. Advancing age tends to bring these on us.

FreshDirect Pilot and Other Online Services

The pilot involved both some investments and approval from USDA so that the company could accept SNAP benefits as payment. It had two problems to address — one technological and one reflecting federal policy.

On the technological front, the company had to develop a way to scan the electronic benefits cards that are our modern-day equivalent to food stamps and to modify its website so that it could accept orders from people who’d pay with these cards.

On the policy front, it had to either absorb the delivery costs or charge its SNAP customers because their benefits cover only food and beverage costs.

Several other grocery companies have somewhat similar online services, though most, it seems, not free delivery. Perhaps Safeway, but only for people with disabilities and only through some direct interaction with its customers service department.

USDA Initiatives

The latest version of the Farm Bill, like the one it replaced, allows some organizations to accept SNAP benefits for home-delivered food. In mid-July, USDA proposed a rule to reflect the law.

Only government and nonprofit organizations can qualify. And they can accept the benefits only for food delivered to households headed by someone who’s at least 60 years old or disabled and “unable to shop for food,” i.e., by going to a grocery story.

Organizations can charge for delivery, but no more than $20 at any one time. They can also set an order minimum up to $50.

At the same time, USDA said it would soon seek up to 20 food purchasing and delivery services for a one-year pilot. Details yet to come. Lessons learned, it said, will help shape the final rule.

Better Than Nothing, But …

The rule USDA will issue — and thus the projects it will pilot — have limits rooted in the Farm Bill. So not everyone who could benefit will. Nor those who could as much as they might perhaps.

For example, using EBT cards to pay for home-delivered food would benefit SNAP recipients who are neither elderly nor too disabled to shop easily at a grocery store.

The CEO of FreshDirect cites “working moms.” We should also, I think, consider others who don’t drive or have someone who’ll regularly drive them for free.

Speaking from personal experience, trundling a weeks’ worth of groceries home in a cart, as I briefly had to, takes a fair amount of strength when you’re trundling on uneven brick sidewalks and across potholed streets.

And it drives up costs because it pretty well rules out economy-size packages — assuming you can’t trundle repeatedly every week. Ditto for stocking up when foods are on sale.

Potential delivery charges are problematic too. We can assume, I think, that most SNAP recipients don’t have big freezers or a lot of other food storage space. So they’d have to use a home delivery services at least several times a month.

A person with a severe disability who relies on SSI benefits receives, at most, $733 a month. And that’s often got to cover all basic living costs except food and some health care. Home delivery at the maximum allowable would even mean less money for them.

Ideally, SNAP recipients could use their benefits for home delivery charges. But merely expanding what the benefits can cover is no solution because they’re already too low — at most, only about $2.30 per meal for a single person and less than twice that for a couple.

Low for anybody, but especially for people who can’t prepare most of what they eat from scratch, as the basis for SNAP benefits assumes.

On the other hand, expecting nonprofits to swallow the costs of home delivery service seems like the sort of cost-shifting we already see, as they (and their donors) help stave off hunger among those who receive SNAP benefits, as well as those who, for various reasons, don’t.

So I would hope that state and local governments seize the opportunity to defray delivery costs. Like as not, they’d save at least as much as they spend, since regular, reasonably balanced meals help prevent — and control — a range of chronic diseases that drive up their healthcare costs.

 

 

 


When No News Isn’t Good News: Hunger Edition

September 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Food Insecurity Over the Longer Term

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

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

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

Food Costs and SNAP

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

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

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

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

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

Food Insecurity in the District of Columbia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Food Hardship Still Common Nationwide and in DC

April 27, 2015

The Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship report delivers some moderately good news about households nationwide. But the news is only comparatively good — and pretty awful for households in some parts of the country.

How FRAC Reports Food Hardship

As I’ve written before, FRAC uses survey data Gallop collects on an ongoing basis from a large sample of households. They’re asked, among other things, “Have there been times in the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

A “yes” is what FRAC refers to as food hardship. It’s roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls food insecurity. But obviously, there’s more than just insecurity in not being able to afford enough food.

FRAC, indeed, entitles its report How Hungry Is America? The answers actually tell what percent of American households were hungry at least some of last year — nationwide and in each state and the District of Columbia.

The report also includes household hunger rates for each of the 100 largest metro areas. These combine survey data for 2013 and 2014 so they’ll be reasonably accurate for what are mostly smaller populations.

The Big Food Hardship Picture

More than one in six households — 17.2% — experienced food hardship in 2014, according to the survey responses. This is hardly a figure to crow about. But it’s the first time the rate has been this low since the recession set in.

It hit 19.5% during the last four months of 2008, then varied from nearly as high to nearly as low as the latest rate. The latest rate held constant throughout the year, as apparently the earlier dips didn’t.

We see much more variation among states. The 2014 food hardship rate was over 19% in a dozen states — and nearly 25% in Mississippi. In only one state — North Dakota — was the rate less than 10%.

The picture further dims when we turn to the large metro areas — technically, the metropolitan statistical areas the federal Office of Management and Budget has carved out for agencies’ “statistical activities.”

Food hardship rates were higher than the national rate in all but 35 of the MSAs — and over 20% in 30 of them. These were mostly in the South and Mid-West, but we see pockets of widespread food hardship elsewhere, e.g., in several of California’s major agricultural centers.

Might it be that the law denying SNAP (food stamp) benefits to undocumented immigrants — and most of those here legally for less than five years — explains those egregiously high California rates?

Food Hardship in DC

The District’s food hardship rate was 15.9% — or nearly one in six households. This puts it just about smack-dab in the middle of the state ranking. Though the local unemployment rate has dipped, the District’s food hardship rate was a bit higher last year than in 2012 — and its ranking much higher, i.e., comparatively worse.

As I’ve remarked before, ranking the District among states if problematic because it’s a city — and would be even if granted statehood. But the MSA ranking is no better because the District is part of an area that includes some very well-off suburbs.

This is the perennial problem — and more consequential — with the affordability criteria for publicly-subsidized housing programs. We see it here in the fact that the MSA the District belongs to has a food hardship rate of 13.1% — the fourth lowest among the large metro areas.

Policy Takeaways

We can look at food hardship from two angles. One is not enough income. Too many people still jobless (and here in the District, half of them longer than unemployment insurance benefits cover).

Deplorably low cash benefits from other sources, e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income. Too many jobs that don’t pay enough to support a family — or even a single person. Etc.

The other angle is a not strong enough anti-hunger safety net. I call it that because what we have, more in some places than others, is broader than the major federally-funded nutrition assistance programs we usually think of. Think, for example, about our donor-supported food pantries and meal services.

FRAC, however, understandably focuses on the largest of the federal anti-hunger programs — SNAP (the food stamp program). Republicans are clearly hostile to SNAP in its current form — if not to the program itself, than to funding it at the level needed to make hunger as rare as it ought to be in this country.

We know that SNAP benefits are too low to cover a full month’s worth of groceries — let alone a mix that would make for a healthful diet. We know, as I remarked above, that many immigrants can’t get them.

We know that the work requirements imposed on able-bodied adults without dependents cut them off from SNAP, even though they can’t find work or get into a qualifying job training program.

The Farm Bill that Congress finally passed last year could have addressed these problems. Instead, we were lucky that it didn’t make the last worse. And now, House Republicans may actually take a stab at converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have envisioned for five years now.

It’s sad when anti-hunger advocates and allies in the broader human needs community have to invest their limited resources in defense of a program that could do more to alleviate food hardship.

Sadder that some unknown number of people in nearly 20 million* households didn’t always have enough to eat last year.

* This is my calculation, based on the Census Bureau’s 2014 count of households.

 


How We Could Cut Child Poverty By More Than Half and Pay for It Too

February 9, 2015

Back in 2007, the Half in Ten campaign set a goal of cutting poverty in America in half in 10 years. Not doing so well at that, are we?

Well, says the Children’s Defense Fund, what if we ended child poverty in this very wealthy country? That, of course, would mean ending poverty for parents and guardians too.

CDF recently released a report to take us a long way toward the child poverty goal. It offers nine recommendations that would reduce child poverty by roughly 60% — and deliver more economic resources for families of all but 3% of children who are poor now.

We’d have 6.6 million fewer children living in poverty, including half a million who are deeply poor, i.e., in households with incomes below 50% of the applicable poverty threshold.

What’s Notable

Several things distinguish this report. The first is that it builds on existing policies and programs that have proved effective. The aim is less to innovate than to increase reach — and in some cases, effectiveness as well.

The second, which is more distinctive, is that the report includes poverty-reduction impacts for each of the recommendations.* These reflect analyses by experts at the Urban Institute, who used Census Bureau data and its Supplemental Poverty Measure — a more complex and accurate measure than the one used for official purposes.

The third distinctive thing is that the report identifies specific policy and other budget changes that would yield enough savings or additional revenues to offset what the recommendations would cost.

What CDF Recommends

The recommendations fall into two big buckets. In the first are recommendations that would enable more low-income parents to work — or work more than they do — and to make their work pay more, both directly and through the tax code.

On the work side itself, we have subsidized jobs, like those temporarily funded through the Recovery Act. Also enough childcare subsidies so that all eligible families below 150% of the federal poverty line could afford high-quality child care during their working hours.

On the pay-more side, we, of course, have an increase in the federal minimum wage, but also an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and changes in the Child Care and Dependent Tax Credit. The latter would become refundable so that families with incomes too low to owe federal taxes could benefit. At the same time, the reimbursement rate for lower-income families would increase.

In the second bucket, we have recommendations that would ensure children’s basic needs are met. These are mostly changes in major safety net programs. And all but one — treatment of child support payments — would lift more children out of poverty than any of the work-related recommendations.

The most effective of all addresses housing costs. CDF proposes a large expansion of the shrunken federal Housing Choice voucher program.

Vouchers would become available for all households with children that have incomes below 150% of the poverty line and that pay — or would have to pay — at least half their income for rent at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rate. This recommendation alone would cut the child poverty rate by 20.8%.

Next down on the impact scale is a recommendation based on one the Food Research and Action Center has made for some years.

It would change the basis for determining SNAP (food stamp) benefits from the Thrifty Food Plan, which is generally used for no other purpose, to the Low-Cost Food Plan, which, FRAC says, is “generally in line with what low- and moderate-income families report they have to spend on food.”

We’d not only have fewer poorly-fed — or even underfed — children. We’d have 11.6% fewer in poverty. No benefits boost, however, for people who’ve got no children living with them.

How We Could Pay for the Proposals

First off, it’s worth noting that we’re already paying for child poverty — roughly $500 billion a year, according to an estimate a team of economists produced some years ago.

The proposals themselves would cost an estimated $77.2 billion a year. This is not only far less. It’s a tiny fraction — about 2% — of what the federal government spends.

CDF nevertheless lists five trade-offs, i.e., policy and spending changes that would free up funds to cover the costs of its proposals.

Like the recommendations, the trade-offs fall into two buckets. In one bucket, we have tax loopholes Congress could close, plus an income tax rate for capital gains and dividends equal to the rate imposed on wages.

In the other bucket, we have cuts in egregiously large and arguably wasteful Pentagon spending. Congress could, for example, give up on the F-35 fighter plane, which still can’t fly. This would free up $162.5 million per plane.

Total savings from this alone would fund all CDF’s proposals for 19 years, it says. Could be even longer, since the President’s proposed budget would fund more of these clunkers than the estimate CDF relied on.

On the other hand, the President’s budget does include some proposals similar to CDF’s, e.g., a subsidized jobs program, a larger maximum Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit for families with young children, more funding for housing vouchers, though far from enough to expand eligibility. General resemblances to some of the trade-offs in his tax code proposals too.

House Speaker John Boehner, among others, pronounced the budget DOA even before it got to Congress. Other sources think there might be some common ground. Far from enough — or in enough of the right places — to significantly reduce the child poverty rate. But it’s useful to know how we could do it — and pay for it too.

* Economist/blogger Jared Bernstein, who uses the report to poke Republican Presidential hopefuls, provides a table that identifies each recommendations, its impact of child poverty and the net new cost.