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.


What the Food Stamp Challenge May Do … and What It Can’t

October 13, 2014

D.C. Hunger Solutions invited me to take the Food Stamp Challenge last week. I’d be joining not only fellow District residents, but also Maryland and Virginia residents who’d been recruited by similar Food Research and Action Center initiatives there.

I took a pass. Truth to tell, I couldn’t see myself living on a $33 grocery budget for the week. For food maybe. But doing without the rich, dark coffee I drink from morn to eve? No way.

I told myself that taking the Food Stamp Challenge wouldn’t achieve anything anyway. It’s supposed to raise awareness of hunger — and more particularly, the woeful insufficiency of SNAP benefits.

Well, I already know that, as a long stream of posts indicates. And I felt that I’d bore friends and followers by blogging, tweeting, FaceBook posting, etc. about my daily trials. Do you really care that I scraped the bottom of the peanut butter jar for lunch or how I suffered from caffeine withdrawal syndrome?

Maybe if I extracted lessons, the way D.C. Hunger Solutions’ Executive Director Alex Ashbrook has. But that didn’t occur to me. I suspect I would have been too grumpy and jittery for contemplation anyway.

Rationalizing perhaps. But I still can’t get on board with the notion that the Food Stamp Challenge raises awareness of what it’s like to depend on SNAP benefits — an inherent flaw acknowledged by D.C. Hunger Solutions itself.

On the one hand, those who do depend on SNAP don’t buy food for only a week. They’ll have some oil on hand to fry up potatoes — perhaps some rice and beans in the cabinet because they stocked up during a sale.

Or in some cases they won’t because, unlike any Food Stamp Challenge participant, they don’t have transportation to get to a grocery story (and home with all the bags) — or because they don’t have a kitchen to cook in.

More importantly, their food stamp challenges go on and on. It’s one thing to dine on ramen noodles for a couple of nights. Quite another to know you’ll be serving ramen noodles to your kids for the indefinite future.

Blogger Professor Tracey captured this difference back in 2009, when she critiqued a month-long Food Stamp Challenge undertaken by a reporter.

“He always knew the experiment would end,” she wrote. “I would be willing to wager for the majority of people living on public assistance that for them one of the most disconcerting aspects is having no idea when they will be able to stop relying on public assistance, if ever.”

And, of course, SNAP recipients can’t quit or cheat, as we know some Food Stamp Challenge participants have — and can guess others did as well.

Finally, we need to recall that the amount participants are challenged to live on is a fourth of the average monthly SNAP benefit. That’s about $33 here in the District and nationwide — somewhat less in Maryland and Virginia.

But the average is considerably lower in some states — barely over $29 in three. And all the averages are just that. Lots of SNAP beneficiaries receive much less — as little as $16 a month in all but two states.

This, we’re told, is one reason that only a third of seniors who’d be eligible for SNAP benefits apply, even though many others can’t fend off hunger without groceries from a food pantry. Paltry SNAP benefits also help explain the reliance on nonprofit feeding programs, of course.

Here in the District, the DC Council has budgeted enough in local funds to raise the minimum SNAP benefit to $30 a month — thanks to a campaign spearheaded by D.C. Hunger Solutions.

It has also adopted the mayor’s proposal to raise the minimum LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit. This will preserve the somewhat higher SNAP benefits some residents have received because — again thanks to D.C. Hunger Solutions — it adopted the so-called “heat and eat” option in 2009.

Nine of the 15 states that had adopted “heat and eat” have done the same, putting House Republican leaders into an awful snit.

Did policymakers shore up SNAP benefits because they’d learned from the Food Stamp Challenge?  Hardly. But notwithstanding all that I’ve said, I suppose it’s possible that policymakers and others who can get their stories into major media may, if only briefly, call attention to the benefits problem.

And I suppose it’s also possible that living for a week on a food stamp budget may put fire into the briefly-unsatisfied bellies of some Challenge participants who’d been content to leave advocacy to others.

Yet a series of polls tell us that more voters than not already think the federal government should spend more to combat hunger. Did this matter to Congressional Republicans — House members, in particular — when they set out to slash SNAP spending for the next five years?

When I shared my reservations about the Food Stamp Challenge with an anti-hunger advocate, she said, in so many words, “The people who should take it won’t.” I think they won’t care about the experiences of those who do either.

They’re ideologically driven to cut safety-net spending and will rationalize that however they can. But there’s animus against poor people in some quarters too. They don’t want to work. They use their SNAP benefits for liquor, lap dances, etc. rather than to feed their children. They [you can fill in the rest].

Darned if I know what we can do to persuade these folks that no one wants to depend on public benefits — or that everyone should have enough to eat, every day of the month, fresh fruits and veggies included

Make the Food Stamp Challenge a qualification for public office?



New Proof That SNAP Benefits Are Too Low

September 25, 2014

As Hunger Action Month draws to a close, I’m recurring to what some of you followers may understandably view as an obsession — the need to increase SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Two recent reports by U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers provide further proof.

Food Insecurity, Despite SNAP

As you may have read, USDA reported that 14.3% of American households — about 17.5 million — were food insecurity during at least part of 2013. At least 8 million had incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP.* And 53% of them received SNAP benefits during the entire year.

In other words, by definition, they didn’t always have “access to enough food for an active, healthy life,” benefits notwithstanding. They didn’t all suffer from hunger, however, because a household may be food insecure if it recurrently can’t afford balanced meals for everyone.

But 23.9% of them had what USDA calls “very low food security.” This means that at least one member, at least some of the time had to skimp on or altogether skip meals because the household didn’t have the resources to buy enough food, healthful or otherwise.

Both the overall food insecurity and the “very low food security” rates for SNAP households are somewhat higher than the 2012 rates. And those were somewhat higher than the 2011 rates.

Food Costs and SNAP Benefits

The households surveyed for the food (in)security report spent, on average, $50 per person per week for food — somewhat over $6.00 more per person than what the maximum SNAP benefit for a three-member household would have covered.

USDA provides a better — if somewhat oblique — measure of the adequacy of SNAP benefits by using the costs of its Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining those benefits.

Adjusting for household size and the age/gender configurations used for the market baskets the TFP comprises, researchers found that the typical food secure household spent 21% more for food than the TFP cost.

Another study by USDA researchers focused on whether adults who received SNAP benefits drank more high-calories beverages than other low-income adults. The full answer (behind a paywall, alas) is that they didn’t.

I mentioned the study here because, as the Food Research and Action Center helpfully reports, the average SNAP recipient surveyed lived in a household whose monthly benefits typically fell $209 short of what it spent on food.

All told, 81% of the recipients surveyed spent more on food than their SNAP benefits covered — obviously, a whole lot more in many cases. The average household’s benefits covered somewhat less than 58% of its monthly food bills.

As you may recall, Congress cut all SNAP benefits by using for other purposes funds the Recovery Act had allocated for a boost. The boost was originally supposed to last until the customary food-cost adjustments to SNAP benefits caught up with it.

The cuts went into effect last November. So they probably aren’t reflected in the food insecurity figures I cited above — or, I would guess, in the shortfalls the beverage survey found.

A Long-Standing Problem

We’ve had evidence that SNAP benefits are insufficient — and why — for a goodly number of years.

FRAC has repeatedly cited defects in the TFP — unrealistically low costs among them. It’s been raising this issue since the early 1990s, when it cited state and local studies showing that the actual costs of the TFP were higher for low-income families than the cost USDA set.

A two-city study conducted in 2007 found that a family of four receiving the maximum SNAP benefit would have had to come up with $2,500 more a year in the lower-cost city — and $3,165 in the higher-cost city — to cover the costs of foods in the TFP.

And, as a wrote awhile ago, a committee of National Research Council and Institute of Medicine experts conclude that one of the key assumptions built into the TFP is “out of synch” with the way most families put food on the table today — and inferentially, with the way many SNAP recipients can.

None of this seems to make a whit of difference to our federal policymakers. Witness the Farm Bill Congress recently passed — and what it might have passed if Republicans had controlled the Senate. But maybe some day ….

* The 8 million are households with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line — the standard gross income maximum for SNAP. The USDA report uses this percent of the FPL as the cut-off for reporting SNAP participation. But 27 states and the District of Columbia have exercised an option to raise their gross income cut-offs. So there may actually have been more food insecure SNAP households.



Hunger in America Widespread and Frequent, New Report Shows

September 8, 2014

About one in seven people in America — 46.5 million in all — depend, at least in part, on nonprofit feeding programs to stave off hunger. This is one of many, many things we can learn from Feeding America’s report on its latest survey of the agencies it helps supply and their clients.

These many, many things gel into different stories. I’ll focus on one of them here — the fact that in this very wealthy country of ours, a very large number of people can’t always afford to eat healthfully, SNAP (the food stamp program) notwithstanding.

But first a few words about the programs themselves. About two-thirds of the more than 58,000 programs that Feeding America helps supply through its food bank network provide groceries.

Most of the others provide foods already prepared. They include so-called soup kitchens, meals delivered to the homes of elderly and disabled people and food services for homeless shelters, other residential facilities, senior centers and daycare centers for children.

Some provide meals and/or snacks to kids who participate in after-school activities, either as their exclusive service or in addition to the aforementioned.

So the programs reach diverse people in diverse ways. Feeding America’s new report reflects responses from more than 60,000 of them.

Some Key Facts About Program Clients

In some respects, it’s hard to generalize about the beneficiaries of the feeding programs because, as I said, they’re a diverse group — and the report is chock-full of data points. For those of us who attend to the poverty dialogue, if we should call it that, a couple of things jump out.

More program clients are white than belong to any other race/ethnicity group — 43.4% of the total and nearly half of the prepared-meal recipients.

Among the adults, 72.5% have, at most, a high school diploma or the equivalent. But 20.5% have at least some college education — and 5.7% a four-year college degree or higher. Slightly over 10% were enrolled in school at the time the survey was conducted.

Nearly 54% of all clients lived in a household where someone was employed during the year. The percent is considerably higher — 70.6% — for households with children.

Yet unemployment and under-employment are clearly problems. Only 34.3% of households included any member who’d worked at least six months out of the last twelve. And only 43% included someone who’d worked at least 30 hours a week.

Both these percents are higher for households with children — 48.9% and 47% respectively. Yet obviously lack of paying work helps account for their food assistance needs.

Ongoing Financial Hardships

Several years ago, Feeding America reported that visits to food pantries had “become the new normal.” This is apparently still true. The number of times individuals and families received groceries and/or meals was well over eight times greater than the number served — 389.2 million over the course of a year.

What this tell us, of course, is that a great many weren’t coping with a one-time emergency. Both the employment figures and others indicate ongoing financial hardships.

About half of the households the grocery and meal programs served were officially poor, i.e. living below the federal poverty line. They include 11.7% who reported no income at all during the past twelve months.

An additional 33.2% had incomes between 101% and 185% of the FPL — the cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.

The median annual income for all households served was $9,175 — less than a fifth of the median for all U.S. households. The median for those with children was somewhat higher — $11,721. But because these households are larger, 77% lived below the FPL.

All but 6.8% of client households lived in what the report characterizes as a “nontemporary housing arrangement,” e.g., an apartment, a house they owned, were paying for or sharing.

But that doesn’t mean they were all stably housed. Nearly 27% had lived in at least two places during the past year. Somewhat over 22% started doubling-up with family members or someone else. And 15.5% had been foreclosed on or evicted within the last five years.

What About Food Stamps?

Notwithstanding their need for food assistance, only 54.8% of client households received SNAP benefits. This seems a low participation rate. And the survey data don’t altogether explain it.

All we know for sure is that about 28% of the households had incomes above the standard eligibility cut-off. But most states and the District of Columbia have higher gross income cut-offs now.

The report suggests that some others might have had savings and/or other assets above the very low limit that some states still impose.

Some probably didn’t qualify because of their immigration status. Federal law bars not only undocumented immigrants, but most of those who’ve been in the country legally for less than five years.

It’s still the case that more households probably could have qualified for SNAP and for various reasons, chose not to apply. The benefits obviously wouldn’t have enabled all them to keep food on the table, however.

About 86% of the client households enrolled in SNAP reported that they use them up in three weeks or less. The same was true for 88.8% of the SNAP households with children.

Struggles, Even With the Feeding Programs

Large numbers of households had to make trade-offs between food and some other necessity — or perhaps multiple necessities.

For example, 57.1% reported having to choose between paying for food or for housing at least once during the prior year. Percents were considerably higher for other trade-offs — nearly 66% for medical care, 66.5% for transportation and 69.3% for utilities.

For many, these weren’t one-time hard choices. More than 30% reported making them every month, except for housing. And that percent wasn’t much lower.

These weren’t the only types of choices households made. Well over 78% — and 83.5% of those with children — reported buying “inexpensive, unhealthy food.” More than half reported knowingly eating food past its expiration date.

And 40% said they watered down food and/or drink. The percent is higher for households with children — 44.8%.

So there you have it — or rather, some select pieces of it. That we should have such hunger in America today is, to my mind, simply shameful — and a call to action on various fronts.

How States Can Ease the Budget Crunch as Poor Families’ Incomes Rise

May 1, 2014

My last post summarized some policy changes Children’s HealthWatch advocates to avert losses of SNAP (food stamp) benefits before families are in good enough financial shape to make up the difference.

These are all changes Congress would have to authorize. Lots of luck there.

But as with the minimum wage, states can act when Congress won’t. CHW has some recommendations for them — and might have had another if it had finished its report after Congress passed the new Farm Bill.

Happily, several of CHW’s recommendations will be irrelevant to most states because their policies already make SNAP benefits available to households that aren’t quite so poor as the standard federal rules require.

Unhappily, states that haven’t probably won’t — at least so long as right-wingers control the policymaking apparatus. Witness how some are foregoing waivers that would preserve benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents.

Here nevertheless are CHW’s policy solutions for states.

One is broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP — a policy already in place in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

With this option, states can raise the gross income cut-off to 200% of the federal poverty line, thus opening the door to more families whose deductions, e.g., housing, childcare costs, would bring their net income below the FPL. Nothing states can do about the net income cut-off.

States can also lift or altogether eliminate the standard $2,000 limit on “countable” assets, e.g., money in the bank, all but $4,650 of the value of a car.

Here again, CHW is more or less preaching to the choir, since only a few states still impose the standard asset test. And 35, plus the District have none at all.

Or perhaps the sermon was indirectly to House Republicans, who wanted the new Farm Bill to end broad-based categorical eligibility — and with it, states’ flexibility on asset tests.

A last recommendation would keep families from going over the SNAP cliff due to temporary income increases, e.g., occasional spurts in work hours, a lone child support check.

States can require recipients to recertify, i.e., prove they’re still eligible, yearly, instead of at the minimum four-month intervals. Some states and the District already do.

They can also, CHW says, smooth the “peaks and valleys” by averaging income over several months, rather than the prior four weeks.

Either or both of these would eliminate the off-again-on-again-experience that Witness to Hunger Tianna Gaines-Turner, among others, has complained of — and to some extent, the food insecurity they suffer because of the time lag between income dips and SNAP renewals.

Now, as I mentioned, states can do one thing CHW didn’t advocate due to timing. They can prevent the benefits cuts House Republicans got into the Farm Bill by giving SNAP households a somewhat larger LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefit.

The LIHEAP benefit can qualify some eligible households for a larger SNAP benefit than they’d otherwise receive. This, in a small way, would mitigate the much larger problem — benefits that are altogether insufficient to cover the costs of a reasonably healthful diet, even before they’re reduced due to income increases.

Eight states have thus far said they’d raise their LIHEAP benefits to the new $20 per year threshold. The District is likely to do the same, since the boost is in the Mayor’s proposed budget — and not controversial, so far as we can tell.

The move certainly is controversial in Congress. House Speaker John Boehner has called it “fraud,” though it’s nothing of the sort. Four House committee chairman have demanded to know what the U.S. Health and Human Services Department intends to do about it.

However this plays out, SNAP benefits still leave a very large number of people at risk of hunger, as Feeding America’s new Map the Meal Gap report suggests.

Not much more states can do about this either. The average nationwide cost of a meal is about $1.00 higher than the maximum per meal SNAP benefit for a four-person family. The gap in the District is closer to $2.00 — and presumably similar in other high-cost cities.

States can, however, minimize the number of people for whom hunger is an everyday experience — through better SNAP outreach, for example, and cross-linked benefits processing.

And to return to where I started, they can make it easier for families who’ve inched up the income scale to keep food on the table without coming up short on the rent.




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