Big Myths Used To Sell Food Stamp Block Grant

May 12, 2011

I might feel better about the House Republicans’ food stamp block grant if Congressman Paul Ryan, who wrote it, were up front about the motive. Not more supportive, mind you, but less concerned — and angry.

It’s clear that the food stamp block grant, like the Medicaid block grant, aims to slash federal safety net spending. Savings on food stamp benefits, plus state administrative support would total nearly 20% over the first 10 years.

The objective here is to pare back what we’ve come to view as our government’s mission — and to offset the revenues that will be lost by the proposed tax cut extensions and expansions.

But the budget plan doesn’t justify the food stamp program that way. It relies instead of three big myths.

The first is that the safety net is likely to become — if it hasn’t already — a “comfortable hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency.”

Complacency? Ryan and his colleagues obviously haven’t taken a food stamp challenge recently — or tried to support themselves and their families on an income well below the federal poverty line.

The second myth is that participation in the food stamp program is increasing at a “relentless and unsustainable” rate because states get more federal funds when they enroll people.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the recession accounts for most of the recent uptick in food stamp spending. Costs, as a share of the nation’s economic output, will fall as the job market improves — because that’s how most of our better safety net programs work.

The third myth is that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been a roaring success and thus should be the model for other safety net programs.

The “proof” cited by the budget plan, as by other proponents of this view, is that the “reforms” it initiated cut caseloads dramatically during the first five years, while poverty rates also fell.

Lots of factors account for both, including a strong economy that made it relatively easy for TANF parents to find work — though often not long-term work at living wages.

But TANF caseloads didn’t expand when the economy cooled in the early 2000s. And, as Legal Momentum reports, only 6.6% more poor adults and children were added to the rolls during the first 19 months of the Great Recession.

That’s not because TANF is so successfully lifting poor families out of poverty. It’s because states have incentives to minimize their caseloads — and the benefits they provide. One of the biggest is the declining value of the federal block grant itself.

They’d have this same incentive if they got a fixed, inadequate sum for their food stamp programs, as they would under the House budget plan.

The plan warns that “the poor and vulnerable will undoubtedly be hardest hit” if the federal government experiences a debt crisis due to runaway spending because the “only recourse will be severe, across-the-board cuts.”

Seems the House Republicans have decided to preempt these hypothetical future cuts by making severe, targeted cuts to safety net programs like food stamps now.


House Republicans Vote To End Food Stamp Program As We Know It

May 5, 2011

I remarked awhile ago that parts of the House Republican Study Committee’s global attack on “welfare” could make their way into legislation that had a better chance of passing.

And sure enough. The budget plan House Republicans have passed includes a provision that would convert SNAP (the food stamp program) into a block grant rather like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Lest one doubt the motive, the plan projects savings totaling $127 billion over the first 10 years alone. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates losses to the District of Columbia and its food stamp-dependent households at $350 million.

I’ve written elsewhere about what the block grant could mean for households that depend on food stamps to keep food on the table.

Briefly, the block grant would put an inflexible constraint on spending, while presumably increasing flexibility on issues like participation criteria and benefits.

So Congress or states, at their discretion, could — and probably would have to — change eligibility standards so that people would have to be even poorer to qualify for food stamps and/or reduce monthly benefits so that they no longer had any basis in the costs of a nutritious diet.

We can see how the spending cap/flexibility model could play out by looking at states’ TANF programs.

According to a recent Legal Momentum review, only 40% of eligible families were enrolled in TANF in 2005, as compared to 84% in the last year of its non-block grant predecessor.

Cash benefits for a TANF family of three are less than 50% of the federal poverty line in every states and less than 30% in more than half. In all but two, they’re worth less in real-dollar value than when the program was created.

The food stamp block grant proposal has other radical implications.

It would end the long-standing principle that everyone (except some immigrants) whose income falls below the cut-off can get food stamps — and for as long as their income remains that low.

As with TANF, there would be new work requirements. But unlike TANF, there’d apparently be no federal funding within the program for client assessments, job training or the supportive services some recipients would need to meet the requirements, e.g., child care subsidies.

More importantly, food stamp benefits would be time-limited, just as TANF cash benefits are. After some number of years, people would be kicked out of the program, unless states chose to cover the full costs of the benefits themselves.

Would there by any exemptions — say, for people who are too young, too old or too disabled to work? For people who are working but still can’t afford to buy enough food for themselves or their families?

The budget plan doesn’t say. Doubtful the House members who voted for it — or even the drafters — have thought through such consequential details.

All they’re concerned about is cutting federal spending, except when it comes to the more than 50% of annual appropriations that go to the military.

But, like the RSC, the budget plan styles the food stamp block grant as the next step in “the historic bipartisan welfare reform” that gave us TANF.

Here’s hoping we’ve got no bipartisan support for this one — or lock-step support from Senate Republicans either.


Food Security Report Shows Federal Nutrition Programs Working, But Not Well Enough

December 8, 2010

The recent U.S. Department of Agriculture household food security report confirms what we were already quite sure of. The number of food insecure households increased again last year. These are households that, at some point during the year, couldn’t afford to buy enough food for all members to have “active healthy lives.”

The increase wasn’t all that great — 17.4 million households, as compared to 17 million in 2008. But both years’ food insecurity rates were the highest USDA had found since it started doing nationally-representative surveys in 1995.

Similarly, the number of families that were very food insecure inched up a bit — from 6.7 million to 6.8 million. In other words, during the last two years, about a third of all food insecure families had such limited resources that at least one member sometimes had to cut back on the size of his/her meals or skip some altogether.

A breakdown of the household figures tells us that more than 50 million people — 16.6% of the population — suffered food insecurity last year. For children, the rate was an alarming 23.2%. That’s 17.2 million children at risk of hunger.

While this is bad news, it could have been much worse, given the sharp rise in the unemployment rate — up from 7.4% at the end of 2008 to 10% by the end of 2009.

As many have observed, the food stamp program seems to be serving its safety net function, with participation continuously rising to new record levels.

On the other hand, the federal nutrition assistance programs aren’t reaching nearly as many low-income households as they should. According to the Food Research and Action Center, only about two-thirds of eligible people are enrolled in the food stamp program.

During the 2008-9 school year, fewer than half the children poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch also got free or reduced-price breakfasts at their school. Figures for federally-subsidized summer meal programs are even worse.

Nor apparently are the benefits the major programs offer sufficient. About 35% of food insecure households and 56% of very food insecure households received food stamps. By definition, they still couldn’t consistently afford to keep enough food on the table.

Turning to the District, the figures we get are less accurate because USDA uses three-year averages to compensate for small state-level samples. The latest figures thus minimize the impacts of the recession.

With that caveat, 12.9% of D.C. households were food insecure, putting the District below the national rate and smack dab in the middle of a state-by-state ranking.

Somewhat less than a third of these households (4.5%) were very food insecure. On this measure, the District ranks lower than 36 states. So, as DC Hunger Solutions says, local efforts may be paying off.

We don’t know how many of the food insecure households were receiving food stamps during the period covered by the USDA average. What we do know is that, beginning in April 2009, those that did began receiving higher-than-usual food stamp benefits due to the nationwide 13.6% maximum boost provided by the economic recovery act.

Now the duration of the boost has been scaled back — first to help pay for some additional fiscal relief to the states and again when the House adopted the Senate’s version of the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act. The Congressional Research Services estimates the loss when the boost ends at $10 to $15 per person per month.

Look for a bigger uptick in food insecurity when that happens, both nationwide and here in the District.


Senate Deals Double Blow To Food Stamp Recipients

August 11, 2010

Much has been written of late about the political and systemic ills that are plaguing the Senate. Most of the griping has come from Democrats who see good bills die or get woefully compromised.

But the Senate recently passed two otherwise good bills with very bad offsets that can’t be blamed on the Republican opposition.

In both cases, the offset reduces the duration of the 13.6% increase in food stamp benefits that was part of the economic recovery act.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, a family of four will stand to lose $59 per month. This at a time when more than 40.8 million people depend on food stamps to stave off hunger.

One of the bills — an amendment actually — is basically the surviving fragments of what began as a fairly robust jobs bill. It will, at long last, extend the higher federal match on state Medicaid costs (FMAP), though in a cost-cutting phased-down form rather than a straightforward extension. The amendment will also provide local education agencies with funds to minimize further teacher layoffs.

Total cost is estimated at $26.1 billion. About 45% of this is “paid for” by terminating the food stamp benefit boost in April 2014. Left alone, it would probably have ended, with no benefits loss, in 2018.

This is the single largest component of the pay-for — increased from $6.7 to $11.9 billion in part because some Senators objected to parts of the pay-for that would have kept multinational corporations from shielding foreign-earned income from U.S. taxes.

So instead an estimated 319,000 public-sector jobs are temporarily saved by sacrificing the stimulus measure that delivers the biggest economic bang for the buck. Some Democrats in the House didn’t like it, but they voted for it anyway. So it’s a done deal now and unlikely to be undone.

The other bill will reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. As I earlier wrote, it will do some very good, if limited things to reduce child hunger and improve child health — the latter mainly by paving the way for more balanced food offerings in schools, daycare centers and after-school programs.

Total price tag $4.5 billion over 10 years. Nearly half — $2.2 billion — paid for by cutting an additional five months off the food stamp benefit increase. This is apparently a substitute for the Senate Agriculture Committee’s plan to tap a program that provides agricultural producers with financial support for their efforts to comply with environmental regulations.

“Highly and widely popular with farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners,” said five of the Republican committee members who objected to the environment incentives pay-for. Those interests obviously have more clout than the poor people who rely on food stamps — and, at least on the Senate side, the organizations that advocate for them.

The White House has thus far been cagily neutral. Michelle Obama, its spokesperson for the legislation,” said that “the Senate vote moves us one step closer to reaching [the] goal” of ending child obesity. Nothing about the pay-for.

Congressman David Obey (D-WI), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says that the idea of cutting food stamp benefits to pay for the local school aid originated in the White House. Not a hopeful sign for its intervention to prevent a double whammy.

Congressman George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the committee that drafted the House bill reeauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act, is keeping his cards close to his chest. Publicly, he too just refers to the “important step” the Senate took and the bipartisan leadership behind it.

As might be expected, FRAC has launched a campaign against cutting food stamp benefits to fund other priorities. The Senate’s child nutrition bill, it rightly says, “will make children hungrier.”

It’s got a sign-on letter, endorsed by more than 1,400 organizations, that I assume will be revised to focus on the House.

The School Nutrition Association, which, of course, welcomes the prospective funding increase for healthier school meals, also urges the House to find a different offset. “In the effort to raise ‘Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids’ [the promise in the title of the Senate bill] we don’t want to risk compromising their dinner to improve their lunch.”

This, of course, assumes that poor parents will still be able to afford dinners. We know that, in the past, families regularly ran out of food stamps before the end of the month. We know that the current Child Nutrition Act falls far short of ensuring that poor children get three squares a day every day. Neither of the reauthorizing bills will come close.

And since when have we decided that only child hunger matters? According to FRAC’s letter, nearly half of all food stamp recipients are children. That leaves at least 20.8 million who aren’t.

Some of them are disabled people dependent on Supplemental Social Security. This year’s maximum monthly benefit for an individual is $674. Some are retired workers, about a quarter of whom depend solely on Social Security. Average monthly retirement benefit is just under $1,170.

These are people for whom every penny matters — as indeed it does for everyone in the nearly 90% of food stamp households whose incomes are below the federal poverty line.

Do we throw these people, children included, under the bus because it’s an easy way to pay for some of the long-overdue improvements in the child nutrition program?


DC Families Missing Out On Food Stamp Benefits

October 2, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Food Stamp Benefits Fall Short of Costs

August 29, 2009

What with the high unemployment rate, it’s no surprise that a record number of people now depend on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. Enrollment in the program jumped to 34.4 million in May–up by 2.2 million since January. There’s every reason to believe the number will go higher.

So it’s more important than ever for Congress to revisit food stamp benefit levels. In 2008, it made some changes in SNAP (the food stamp program) that modestly boosted benefits for most recipients and gave a somewhat greater boost for working families with high child care costs.

The economic stimulus package included a further temporary 13.6% increase in benefits. This gives a family of four a maximum of $668 per month–or about $1.85 per person per meal.

I can’t imagine eating healthfully on that amount. My husband and I spend more than what our total monthly benefit would be just on fruits and vegetables. And we (mostly) steer clear of the pricier choices.

The heart of the problem is that benefits are calculated on the basis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan. The TFP is basically a market basket of foods that, if prepared at home, would provide a nutritious diet at minimal cost. Or at least that’s what it’s supposed to be.

A family is expected to spend 30% of its net income on food. Food stamps are supposed to make up the difference between this and the cost of the TFP. But they don’t. According to a recent USDA study, the way that benefits are annually adjusted has resulted in consistent shortfalls–an average of $22 per month in 2008.

And this is only an average. In 2007, a research team developed an actual shopping list for a family of four based on the TFP and then collected prices on the items at 16 stores in low-income neighborhoods in Boston and Philadelphia.

They found that the average cost of the TFP in Boston was 39% higher than the family’s maximum food stamp benefit and 49% higher in Philadelphia. This, of course, is in part because, like the official poverty threshold, food stamp benefits take no account of geographic differences.

USDA has three other food plans–low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal. According to the Food Action and Research Center, the low-cost plan is generally in line with what low and moderate-income families report they need to spend on food. Its estimated cost is currently more than 20% higher than the TFP.

As part of its strategy for ending child hunger, FRAC recommends that food stamp benefits be based on the low-cost plan and that benefits be adjusted more quickly so that they reflect current prices, rather than prices calculated up to 16 months earlier.

The House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2010 provide a hefty increase for SNAP. This is intended to accommodate the costs of rising participation, plus an extension of the temporary increase.

But, so far as I can see, real reform isn’t on the horizon.


Obesity and Poverty

January 20, 2009

The Executive Director of Bread for the City has written an open letter to the Washington Post in response to its recent article on obesity and hunger. The letter reports recent steps Bread has taken to help its clients “not only eat, but eat well”–nutrition counseling and healthy cooking classes, improvements in the nutrition profile of the foods it provides.

It’s good to see Bread for the City taking the lead on this important issue and especially to learn that it’s practicing what it preaches. But, as its letter says, high obesity rates among poor people are not something Bread and other nonprofits can tackle alone. And they must be tackled because obesity is linked to serious (and costly) chronic health problems, including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.

Bread calls on the new Administration to expand access to food assistance programs in a way that prioritizes nutrition. As the Post reports, the incoming Secretary of Agriculture seems ready to propose higher nutrition standards for in-school meals. These would certainly help. But, as everyone knows, a more comprehensive approach is needed.

Of course, obesity is not restricted to poor people. It’s a major public health issue for the entire population. However, the federal government and state and local governments too have greater opportunities to influence what poor people do and don’t do. They can exercise this influence sensibly and respectfully or otherwise.

The federal government already shapes the diets of some poor people with its list of foods state agencies can authorize under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Now some are proposing that it restrict use of food stamps to healthy foods and beverages.

This idea is fraught with problems. An article in USDA’s Amber Waves identifies some of them. As it indicates, there’s no easy way to draw a bright white line between healthy and unhealthy food products.  Nor is it certain that the resulting restrictions would meaningfully change purchasing behavior. To these practical issues, I would add the paternalistic coercion that would be involved. Uncle Sam knows what’s best for you and is going to see to it that you live right.

It would make more sense, I think, to look at the obesity issue holistically and design a variety of coordinated programs that would empower poor people to maintain a balanced diet. Here are four basic questions that can trigger solutions:

  • Do poor people have the resources to stave off hunger–a possible trigger for overeating and fat storage?
  • Do they have the resources to buy a variety of healthful foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables?
  • Do they have ready access to sources of a variety of healthful foods?
  • Do they have the know-how to maintain a balanced diet on a limited budget?

Despite a number of promising initiatives, the answer to all these questions is a resounding No.

So there’s a lot of work here for governments at all levels and for private sector businesses, nutritionists, other health professionals and nonprofits, including Bread. We’ve enough experience to know they’ll achieve most if they collaborate.