House Agriculture Committee Finds a Lot to Like in SNAP

January 12, 2017

When I learned that the House Agriculture Committee planned a top-to-bottom review of SNAP (the food stamp program), I thought it was a setup for legislation along the lines the right-wing majority had already teed up.

But the report the Committee recently issued is remarkably even-handed—and very informative. It does flag problems, including some that right-wingers have cited in attacks on our safety net generally. But they don’t support a major overhaul.

In fact, they bolster arguments against the sort that House Speaker Paul Ryan and fellow travelers have proposed. Here are a few of examples.

SNAP Gives States a Lot  of Flexibility

The report details the many choices SNAP affords state agencies. Most have to do with administration—how often they’ll require beneficiaries to prove they’re still eligible, how swiftly they’ll adjust benefits when income changes, etc.

But some are choices that can make more low-income people eligible, within the confines set by federal law. States may, for example, opt for so-called broad-based categorical eligibility, which opens the door to families whose incomes, before allowable deductions (but not after) exceed the standard cut-offs.

This, says the report, is the most significant of all state options. It does, however, note that states may also opt to exclude the value of certain assets that would otherwise disqualify them—the value of a car, for example, money in the bank.

This too makes more people eligible — and more able to both weather emergencies and achieve greater economic independence.

SNAP Affords Ample Room for Civil Society Organizations

Ryan says that the federal government has “crowded out civil society,” discouraging community-level organizations from engaging in efforts to help the poor.

The report emphatically argues that combating hunger in our country requires the participation of federal programs, as well as a range of local and state-level organizations.

It cites examples of the ways that charitable organizations and federal safety net programs work together, e.g., nonprofit food banks, supported in part by the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

And it quotes testimony from a food bank CEO on the need to keep federal nutrition programs strong so that the dollars from private donations can support innovations.

SNAP Is Not a Hammock

The report embraces the unobjectionable view that work is the best pathway out of poverty. But it cites data showing that nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants can’t be expected to work—because they’re too young, too old or too disabled.

Household-level data do suggest that more of the remaining participants could work, but didn’t during an average month in 2015—or rather, could work if the labor market had enough jobs available and they the skills to qualify.

The report could have veered into time limits at this point. It instead finds two areas where states could improve their programs within the law as-is.

First, some need to do a better job of enforcing SNAP work requirements, it says. The requirements it refers to aren’t those that have caused many thousands of able-bodied adults without dependents to lose their benefits.

They’re applicable to all unemployed adults who aren’t exempt for various reasons, e.g., because they’re responsible for caring for a disabled family member.

These presumptively employable adults must register for work, accept a job if offered and not quit voluntarily without good cause or reduce their working hours below 30 per week. So there’s no penalty if they can’t find a job offering a set minimum number of hours.

The report also strongly suggests that some states — or counties within states — don’t have SNAP employment and training programs, though all receive E&T funds.

“Most,” it says, quoting testimony, “have consisted of a referral to a job search program.” So it’s agencies that need to shape up, not SNAP beneficiaries.

The report provides examples of effective programs and hopefully cites pilots the current Farm Bill is funding.

It strongly implies that effective programs combined with “reasonable requirements, strongly enforced” will suffice to engage SNAP participants in activities leading to gainful employment.

“There is little evidence that harsh provisions are necessary,” it says, again quoting testimony.

On the other hand, the report does suggest that SNAP, combined with other safety net programs can discourage participants from working their way up the income scale because what they gain in pay is offset by what they lose in benefits.

To this extent then, it adopts Ryan’s view that the multiplicity of “welfare” programs, each operating under its own rules creates what’s often referred to as a cliff. For him, this proves that they’re a “poverty trap.”

The report instead notes that states may convert the cliff into downward slope by providing transitional SNAP benefits when families leave Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because they’ve found paying work.

And it includes one important data point that argues against the view that SNAP participants choose to remain poor or near-poor rather than lose their benefits. Specifically, most participants remain in the program for, at most, two years.

The Ag Committee Chair clearly aimed to build bridges between his conservative and progressive colleagues in preparation for the next reauthorization of SNAP.

“You will find nothing in this report that suggests gutting SNAP or getting rid of a program that does so much for so many people,” he and the chair of the Nutrition Subcommittee tell us in their prefatory statement.

At least some of us won’t find everything we’d like to have seen. For example, the report touches only tangentially on the adequacy of SNAP benefits, though it includes a section on promoting healthful eating.

But it does, as the statement says, show “there is common ground to be found both in understanding the needs of the population SNAP serves, and in working collaboratively to improve SNAP.”

 

Advertisements

Better Poverty Measure Changes Rates, Strengthens Case for Safety Net

September 21, 2015

As I noted last week, the Census Bureau published the results of its latest Supplemental Poverty Measure analysis at the same time as its official poverty measure rates for 2014.

As in the past, the SPM produces a somewhat higher nationwide poverty rate — 15.3%. Though a tad lower than the comparable rate last year, slides from the Bureau say it’s not enough to pass the statistical test.

We also see different rates, both higher and lower, for the major population groups the Bureau breaks out. For example, the child poverty rate is 4.8% lower — 3.5 million or so fewer children. At the same time, the senior poverty rate rises by nearly as much.

We see shifts among major race/ethnicity groups as well. The largest are for blacks (3% lower) and for Asians (4.8% higher).

All these shifts and others reflect four major ways the SPM differs from the official measure — the base it proceeds from, adjustments it makes for certain basic living and other “necessary” costs, whom it includes as part of a family and what it counts as income.

This last gives us a glimpse — imperfect, but the best we’ve got — of how well some of our major federal anti-poverty measures work. And once again, we get reliable hard data proving that they do work, right-wing canards notwithstanding.

For example, we generally see lower deep poverty rates, i.e., the percent of the population overall or of a particular group that lived on incomes no greater than half the applicable poverty threshold — about $9,535 for a parent with two children.

The overall deep poverty rate is 1.6% lower than what the official measure produces. The deep poverty rate for children drops more markedly — from 9.7% to 4.3%.

The Census Bureau attributes the lower deep poverty rates to non-cash benefits targeted to low-income people — a type of income the SPM captures, while the official measure doesn’t. Seniors are the exception here, it notes.

Their deep poverty rate goes up to 5.1%, making it the same as the rate for the population as a whole. This is mainly because both the official measure and the SPM count Social Security benefits as income, but only the latter adjusts for medical out-of-pocket costs, along with others deducted from the base.

It’s nevertheless still the case that Social Security proves the single most effective anti-poverty program we’ve got. Without Social Security benefits, half of all people 65 and over would fall below the poverty threshold.

The Census Bureau shows this and the effects of other benefits — mostly parts of the safety net — by deducting their value and displaying the new poverty rate.

So we learn, for example, that not counting the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit would make the SPM poverty rate 3.1% higher. Little back-of-the-envelope math tells us that the tax credits effectively lifted about 9.8 million people out of poverty, including more than 5.2 million children.

SNAP (food stamp) benefits rank third among the anti-poverty impacts. They account for about 4.7 million fewer poor people, almost half of them children.

On the other hand, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) benefits lifted only about 316,000 people above the poverty threshold — and so few in the working-age (18-64) group as to make no nick in their poverty rate whatever.

Now, the analysis doesn’t reflect the way benefits work in the real world. Most families that receive federally-funded help with their heating bills probably also get SNAP benefits, for example. Likewise low-income working families that get an annual budget boost from the refundable tax credits.

We don’t yet have an analysis that rolls all such safety net benefits together, though we do have one for 2012 that shows they cut the SPM poverty rate by nearly half and the child poverty rate by even more.

Do we nonetheless have policy lessons here? Well, of course, we do. Don’t want to try your patience, followers, but can’t restrain myself from flagging (flogging?) a few.

LIHEAP has become a pitiful thing, partly because it got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts, partly because this came on top of earlier cuts and partly because, in case you hadn’t noticed, home heating costs have increased.

So fewer households are getting such help as LIHEAP provides and they’re getting less — so much less that the average grant didn’t cover even two months of heating during the 2014-15 winter season.

Not going to see much improvement, if any so long as the Congressional Republican majority insists on keeping appropriations for non-defense programs below the caps set by the Budget Control Act. The House Appropriations Committee has, in fact, approved a $25 million cut for LIHEAP.

Changes in the refundable tax credits that help account for the effectiveness the SPM analysis indicates will expire at the end of 2017. And what seems a bipartisan sentiment in favor of expanding the EITC for childless workers is thus far little more than that — and not all that bipartisan, if we judge by cosponsors of bills pending in Congress.

Though SNAP clearly lifts people of all ages out of poverty, it doesn’t prevent a goodly number from going hungry at least some of the time. More about this in an upcoming post — and more perhaps about other issues one can tease out of the new SPM report.

 


Hunger Struck More Families Last Year, USDA Reports

September 7, 2012

September is Hunger Action Month — a campaign launched by Feeding America to get us involved in efforts to help end hunger in this country.

And hunger there surely is, as the latest food (in)security report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

Last year, nearly 174.9 million households sometimes — or often — didn’t have the resources to buy the food that all members needed “for an active, healthy life.” These are households USDA classifies as food insecure.

There were more of them than in 2010, but the percent increase isn’t statistically significant, USDA says.

The bigger news, I think, is that the number of households with very low food security, i.e., those in which at least one member sometimes scrimped on meals or skipped them altogether, rose to more than 6.8 million — 5.7% of all households surveyed.

This is statistically significant. And it puts the very low food security rate back up to where it was during the recession we’re still recovering from.

All told, nearly 16.9 million people sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. For adults, in the main, this typically meant hunger during seven months of the year — and for a few days during each of these months.

Drilling down a bit, we see that:

  • Food insecurity afflicted 20.6% of households with children — nearly 8 million families.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in slightly under half these households — and actually experienced hunger in 374,000 of them.
  • Food insecurity rates were highest for single-mother families — 36.8% or more than 3.5 million families.
  • More than 1.1 million of them — 11.6% — were so food insecure as to fall into the generally recurrent hunger category.
  • Single-father households also had unusually high food insecurity rates — 24.9%. But there were far fewer of them.

The correlation with poverty is, of course, very high. So not surprisingly, we see significant race/ethnicity differences.

  • Among black households, 25.1% were food insecure, as compared to 11.4% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The very low food security, i.e., hunger, rate among black households was 10.5%, as compared to 4.6% for white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 26.% and the very low food security rate 8.3%.
  • Children themselves were food insecure in 14.6% of black households, as compared to 6.7% of white, non-Hispanic households.
  • The child food insecurity rate for Hispanic households was 17.4%.

Well over 88% of food insecure households were poor enough to qualify for food stamps. The USDA report doesn’t tell us how many received them. It does, however, tell us how households below the program’s standard income eligibility ceiling fared.

On the one hand, a large majority managed to keep enough food on the table without food stamps for all of 2011.

The survey results don’t tell us how, though we might guess that free school meals played a part. Perhaps also the food pantries and other emergency sources that Feeding America’s network supplies.

On the other hand, nearly half (49.1%) of the households that received food stamps all year were nevertheless food insecure. And more than one in five (22.3%) were so food insecure that at least one member of the household didn’t always have enough — or anything — to eat.

The new Farm Bill the Senate passed would nevertheless reduce food stamp benefits for about half a million households.

The version pending in the House would do the same. It would also cut off all benefits for at least 1.8 million low-income people, plus free school meals for about 280,000 prospectively hungry children.

If we’re going to end hunger in America — a doable thing in this very wealthy country — the very least our elected representatives can do now is avoid making it worse.

Sad that anyone should have to say something so blatantly self-evident.


House Agriculture Committee Slashes Food Stamp Program

April 22, 2012

You can’t have both guns and butter. House Republicans have taken this old piece of federal budget wisdom seriously. They’ve opted for guns — not over butter, but over food assistance for poor people.

The guns at issue here are funds for defense. Sequestration, i.e., the annual across-the-board cuts required by the Budget Control Act, would reduce them by $54.7 billion a year.

Nobody in a position of power wants those cuts, including the President.

His proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget would hit the total deficit reduction targets in the BCA by a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. It would also, as the BCA does, protect certain key programs for low-income people, including food stamps.

House Republicans will have none of this. Their budget plan, among other things, charged six committees to come up with more non-defense savings — enough to hit the deficit reduction targets, but without touching defense.

The House Agriculture Committee had to save $33.2 billion over the next 10 years, beginning with $8.2 billion in the upcoming fiscal year.

It could have gone after the costly subsidies our government pays to farmers — actually, for the most part, large farming operations.

Some of these provide special benefits for producing certain crops, e.g., yearly payments (even if the farmer grows nothing), compensation to make up for lower market prices. Another subsidizes insurance against crop losses. Yet farmers also get compensated when droughts, frosts, etc. ruin their crops.

All told, these subsidies cost some $25 billion a year. Nice safety net, huh?

The House budget plan itself identifies some of these subsidies for “reforms.” But they’re for another day.

So the Agriculture Committee, heeding “assumptions” made by the Budget Committee found its mandated savings — all of them and more — in the food stamp program.

First, it would shave months off the expiring boost in benefits that was part of the Recovery Act. They’re now scheduled to end in November 2013 — thanks to earlier cutbacks Congress made to offset the costs of other measures.

Under the House Agriculture plan, the boost would end two months from now. For a family of four, this would mean $57 less per month, according to a new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The bulk of the savings, however, would come from two changes in the food stamp law itself.

One of them would, in effect, require households to be poorer to qualify for food stamps.

Under current law, a household can generally have no more than $2,000 in assets — or $3,250 if any of its members is a senior or a person with a disability. Total household income must be no greater than 130% of the applicable federal poverty line.

But most states — and the District of Columbia — have used an option in the law to eliminate the asset test. They’ve expanded their definition of “categorical eligibility,” i.e., types of low-income households that automatically qualify for food stamps.

This not only allows low-income families to conserve what they can for unexpected expenses. It also lets states raise the income eligiibilty threshold up to 200% of the federal poverty line — the level that many analysts use for classifying the low-income population.

The House Agriculture Committee would put a stop to this. Only households in which all members receive cash assistance could be deemed categorically eligible.

No more categorical eligibility for those that receive other types of publicly-funded support for low-income people, e.g., child care subsidies, job training.

Nor for households where only the children receive cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or as Supplemental Security Income.

At least two million people — perhaps as many as three million –would be forced out of the program. More than 280,000 children would lose not only food stamp benefits, but free school meals.

The other change in existing law would permanently reduce the benefits some households receive — again by severely limiting an option a growing number of states now use.

Briefly, the complicated formula states must ordinarily use to calculate food stamp eligibility and benefits levels includes an income allowance for utility costs, based on those applicants actually have to pay for.

But if the family receives benefits from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, it automatically qualifies for the maximum allowance.

Fourteen states — and the District — have given families in the food stamp program a small LIHEAP benefit. Some of the families get higher food stamp benefits as a result. No big windfall here, however.

The House Agriculture Committee would virtually eliminate the so-called “heat and eat” option — or so I infer, since it expects to save $14 billion.

All this would be in addition to, not instead of the $133.5 billion House Republicans intend to save by converting the food stamp program to a block grant.

Moral of this story: Some people’s safety nets are worthier than others.


Childless Adults Face Food Stamp Cut-Off

February 27, 2012

Some years ago, I was fired from a job I’d had for a long time. I was told my position had been restructured out of existence. But it sure felt like firing to me.

This was during a recession. And as time went on — and hopes dwindled — I got to thinking about what would happen if I never found work again.

I realized that I couldn’t rely on any of the major public benefits programs because I was a relatively young, able-bodied adult with no children.

If I’d sunk into poverty earlier, I could have gotten food stamps — though hardly at a level that would have enabled me to eat three squares a day.

But Congress had decided that people like me had to earn their food stamps by demonstrating personal responsibility — this as part of the same law that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As with the TANF, “personal responsibility” means, among other things, working or preparing for work.

So under ordinary circumstances, most of us able-bodied adults without dependents can get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period unless we’re working at least 20 hours a week or engaged, for the same amount of time, in a job training or workfare program, i.e., unpaid public service.

The Recovery Act suspended this time limit through September 2010. President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget would have reinstated the suspension.

But the proposal went nowhere. Hardly surprising when House Republicans had decided that the food stamp program was growing out of all compass and should be converted to a block grant like TANF.

For the most part, however, ABAWDs have been okay because the law allows states to get a waiver from the time limit for those who live in areas where the unemployment rate is over 10% or there are “insufficient jobs.”

I’ve tried to figure out whether this long-standing policy will provide a reasonable substitute for a reinstatement of the Recovery Act suspension. Very difficult because most of the available data are for states as a whole, not areas within states.

This much seems clear. Very few, if any agencies will be able to claim a statewide waiver in Fiscal Year 2013.

As of December, unemployment rates were higher than 10% in only four states and the District of Columbia. Seems likely that fewer states will qualify on this basis when the new fiscal year begins.

Which leaves the “insufficient jobs” option. Memos from the federal Food Nutrition Service indicate that it’s been using the trigger criteria for the Extended Benefits portion of unemployment insurance to decide whether states qualify for a year-long statewide waiver.

As I wrote awhile ago, states “trigger off” EB when their average unemployment rate for the current three-month period is no longer at least 6.5% higher than during the comparable period in a recent prior year.

So more states will fall off the trigger list as time goes on, even though their unemployment rates are well above normal.

This doesn’t mean states won’t be able to claim waivers. But it seems they’ll have to revert to the much more restrictive Department of Labor “surplus area” lists — generally local jurisdictions where the unemployment rate is 20% higher than the national rate.

Perhaps in ordinary times it makes sense to say that able-bodied adults who need food stamp benefits should work or prepare for work if they can. Whether they should be coerced into working for no pay is a separate issue.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

There are still nearly four times as many people looking for work as jobs available.

Job re-training programs are reportedly stressed to the max. And it seems reasonable to suppose that a fair number of the longer-term jobless ABAWDs have already completed one anyway. Doubtful they could get into another that would carry them through till they found work.

So the end of the current ABAWD waivers will almost surely mean that more low-income people go hungry. Seems unfair to punish them because jobs are scarce and they’ve no one but themselves to support.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget again proposes a time-limit suspension. I’d like to think it will pass this time, but that’s more hope for change than I can muster.


Did Fewer DC Residents Get Food Stamps Last Year?

November 28, 2011

A recent Census Bureau brief based on the 2009 and 2010 results of the American Community Survey shows changes in the number and percent of households that participated in SNAP (the food stamp program).

Not surprisingly, the total number of U.S. households participating jumped last year — by 16%, in fact, up to 13.6 million households. That’s nearly one in eight of all households in the country.

The brief shows not only the depth but the breadth of hardship in our country. Also the relative success of one of our major safety net programs since SNAP has been expanding markedly ever since the recession set in.

Participation rates increased significantly in all but five or six states. (There seems to be a discrepancy between the text and the table on this point.) Many of the increases were very large — at least 20% in 21 states and well over 40% in three.

This too perhaps is not surprising since the year’s average unemployment rates rose significantly in 22 states. More tellingly perhaps, the percent of working-age residents who were gainfully employed dropped significantly in 32 states.

And some 3.9 million jobless workers exhausted their long-term unemployment benefits, which may not have been enough to cover their living costs anyway.

What is somewhat surprising is that the reported SNAP participation rate in the District of Columbia dropped — by 10.5% or an estimated 3,376 households.

This has occasioned some comment. Unnamed analysts consulted by the Washington Examiner opined that the drop reflects an out-migration to nearby suburbs where the cost of living isn’t “skyrocketing.”

Over the long haul, this is undoubtedly true. As the one named analyst observes, housing in the District is becoming increasingly expensive — unaffordable, in fact, for households poor enough to qualify for food stamps.

But are we really to believe that about 3,370 low-income households decamped last year?

No reason to come to any such conclusion because, as the Census Bureau brief makes clear, that apparent drop in SNAP participation wasn’t statistically significant.

In other words, the number of District households surveyed each year was so relatively small that the apparent change could be due simply to the fact that fewer households in the 2010 sample received food stamps.

In fact, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute argues that the ACS isn’t the best source for SNAP participation. Better, it says, to rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose preliminary figures show that 9,940 more District households received food stamps in 2010.

Doesn’t mean that all is well. The Food Research and Action Center reports that 18.9% — about 113,825 — District residents couldn’t always afford to buy enough food last year.

Does, however, mean that it pays to read the fine print.


What We Know (And Don’t) About Family Food Hardship In DC

October 6, 2011

Here’s the issue that’s been perplexing me ever since I read the Food Research and Action Center’s latest food hardship analysis.

As I earlier wrote, it tells us that an extraordinarily high percentage of District of Columbia households with children — 37.4% in fact — suffered from food hardship in 2009-10. In other words, the adult(s) sometimes didn’t have the resources to buy enough food for everyone in the family.

It would be easy to say, well, that’s because the District has an unusually high family poverty rate. Easy, but too simple. Because the federal government subsidizes a number of nutrition assistance programs.

The best known is the food stamp program — now officially SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the District bonuses for achieving top participation rates in both 2009 and 2010. So it seems unlikely that the family food hardship rate can be explained mainly by lack of food stamp benefits.

However, we’ve got good reasons to believe that food stamp benefits are too low to cover the full costs of food for a poor District family.

This still may not fully explain the family food hardship rate because other programs should have supplemented these benefits — at least, for households with children young enough for school attendance to be compulsory.

Are these programs not reaching the families that suffer from food hardship? Or do the families still run short, even though eligible members participate?

This is the question I said I couldn’t find the answer to. Here’s what I have found.

FRAC reports that the District’s summer meal program serves a very high percentage of low-income children — much higher than all those states with lower family food hardship rates. The base for this percentage is children who got free or reduced-price lunches during the school year — 80.2% last July.

FRAC also tracks school breakfast participation — again using school lunch participation as a benchmark. For the 2009-10 school year, it reports that somewhat over 48% of children who got free or reduced-price lunches also got F/RP breakfasts.*

This puts the District somewhat above the middle of both the state ranking and the large city school district ranking.

But how is the District doing with its school lunch program?

FRAC’s reports indicate growing participation by low-income children. In 2009-10, the total reached 37,306 — mostly children receiving free lunches, i.e., living in households at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

What we need to know is how many eligible children missed out. For that, it seems, we’d need to have access to unpublished data — or, for all I know, data that aren’t even collected.

The same is true for WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

FRAC’s nifty data tool tells us that, in 2009, the average monthly participation in the District totaled 17,463 — 6.5% more than 10 years ago. But we’ve got no benchmark to tell us what percentage of eligible mothers and young children the program served.

Ditto for Head Start, pre-K and daycare programs funded under the federal Child Care Development Block Grant — all of which generally provide kids with something to eat.

The Children’s Defense Fund reports District-level participant numbers for each. Total for 2010 was 5,806. But no percentages to tell us how many eligible children didn’t participate. And no way of knowing whether all who did got meals — or, if so, how many per day.

FRAC’s data tool provides average daily participant numbers for children in D.C. childcare programs, including Head Start, that serve meals or snacks subsidized by the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program.

In 2009, average daily participant numbers for them all totaled 5,948 — about 230 fewer than in 2007. But we’ve no way of knowing whether some low-income children got fed in programs that didn’t participate in CACFP.

And no way of knowing how many low-income children got no federally-subsidized meals or snacks at all. These would surely be children in the households most likely to suffer food hardship.

I’m not saying we need all these data to alleviate food hardship in the District — or for that matter, nationwide. But I do think we need to know more than we do to craft solutions that will give us the biggest bang for the buck.

More bucks too.

* As indicated below, FRAC has issued two school breakfast reports for the 2009-10 school year. The participation rate for the District is 48.4% in one and 48.2% in the other.