SNAP Reform a Key Action Against Hunger

September 8, 2016

September is Hunger Action Month — an annual campaign Feeding America launched in 2008 to get us all involved in advocacy, volunteering and other actions against hunger in our communities. That, as you know, was at the outset of the Great Recession.

It’s supposedly far behind us, but more people are hungry than shortly before it began. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported that significantly fewer people lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough of the right kinds of foods for “an active healthy lifestyle.”

Yet its survey found over 42.2 million of them — roughly 6 million more than in 2007. About 2.7  million more — 14.6 million in all — had “very low food security,” i.e., lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough of anything.

More than half the food insecure people lived in households that received SNAP (food stamp) benefits for the entire year. And well over 21% had very low food security.

I’ve used past food insecurity figures, as well as other evidence to hammer on the need to increase SNAP benefits. I’d like to recognize this Hunger Action month differently. So I’ll share a personal discovery as a lead into gleanings from a new policy brief.

Since Jesse died, I’ve tried to keep track of what I spend on food — just curious to know how much less than when our budget had to cover meals and snacks for both of us. Then I wondered how that compared to what I could buy if I depended on SNAP benefits.

I found I’m spending, on average, about twice the maximum I could receive. I find this quite remarkable.

I cook virtually everything that needs cooking — mostly from scratch. I don’t eat beef or pork any more. I don’t buy pricey fish or seafood, much as I’d like to. None of the priciest fruits and vegetables either. No sodas or sweet munchies now that I can keep such temptations out of the house without depriving anyone else.

Don’t mean to bore you with the details of my diet. But they’re relevant to my discovery in several ways addressed by the aforementioned brief and its proposals for “modernizing” SNAP.

The author, Professor James Ziliak, focuses on the food plan used to set SNAP benefit — aptly named the Thrifty Food Plan because it’s even cheaper than the lowest-cost plan USDA has developed for the rest of us.

The TFP assumes that SNAP households will fix their meals from scratch — mainly raw ingredients, though not entirely. Families aren’t expected to bake their own bread, for example. And some recipes USDA has published include canned beans, store-bought tomato sauce and the like.

Preparing TFP meals nevertheless requires an estimated 13 hours a week — or perhaps 16 — according to different studies Ziliak cites. Neither time estimate includes getting the groceries or cleaning up after cooking and eating.

Ziliak traces the prep time to the foods in the TFP “market basket.” They’ve changed over time, for two inter-related reasons. One is that federal law has required USDA to adjust the TFP in light of new Dietary Guidelines for Americans — the federal government’s recommendations for a well-balanced diet.

The other is that USDA uses a model that keeps the real-dollar cost of the plan the same as it was when the TFP replaced a very cheap, short-term plan in 1975. The result is a market basket increasingly weighted toward very low-cost foods — bought in bulk or the equivalent.

Hence the unspoken from-scratch assumption. That’s unrealistic for many households, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council concluded — and not only because of the time involved.

I’ve already summarized on other reasons. So I’ll confine myself here to one that’s a core concern of the modernizing proposal — the “geographic variability of food prices.”

Basically, those low-cost foods in the market basket aren’t always as cheap as the TFP assumes because USDA prices them based on the CPI-U — the consumer price index most federal programs use for inflation adjustments.

The index is for urban consumers nationwide. But, as we all know, food costs a whole lot more in some metro areas than others. Using a fairly new database, Ziliak maps the differences between actual TFP market basket costs and the national average in 2010.

In parts of the country, including the District of Columbia, they were as much as 21% higher than average. In-depth studies in a couple of cities have found even great gaps between SNAP benefits and market basket costs.

Ziliak’s proposal would have SNAP benefits immediately increased by 20%. The boost derives from what he calls the “time deficit,” i.e., the difference between the food prep time the TFP requires and what someone (or ones) in SNAP households probably spend.

It would thus eliminate or at least reduce a related deficit — the extra money many of them spend to put food on the table because they don’t have that much prep time.

USDA would then make two changes in the model it uses to calculate the market basket cost it uses for benefits. It would introduce geographic price adjustments, using any one of several already available sources.

It would also change the so-called reference household it uses. That’s now a two-adult household, with two children, the elder somewhere between six and nine years old. Ziliak wants the elder to become a teenage boy. His food needs would presumably drive another across-the-board increase.

Lastly, USDA would conduct research aimed at improving the household food purchasing data it uses to create the market baskets — and, as you might expect, actual food procurement, prep and cleanup time.

The reforms would, of course, reduce food insecurity. They would also, Ziliak argues, reduce poverty, especially for very low-income households. (We’d see the impact if countable income included the value of SNAP benefits, as it already does in the Census Bureau’s better poverty measure analyses.)

The benefits boosts would lead SNAP households to eat more healthfully too, Ziliak says. He borrows here from a recent study for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It assumes a $30 per month increase in SNAP benefits — roughly the same 20% Ziliak recommends.

We’ve had ample evidence of problems with the TFP for a long time — and other proposed fixes. I’ve focused on Ziliak’s because it pulls in a lot of the recent research and makes a persuasive case for reforms that USDA could readily undertake — if Congress headed the call to action on hunger.

Big if, I know.

 

 

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Of Poverty Traps and Benefits Cliffs

April 28, 2014

Congressman Paul Ryan, as we know, views safety net programs as a “poverty trap” because they’re means-tested.

“The federal government effectively discourages … [poor families] from making more money, his War on Poverty report says, because they’ll lose benefits if they do — and pay higher taxes as well.

Whether these prospects actually discourage work is debatable — and at the very least, contingent on many variables. The loss of benefits isn’t. Progressives and conservatives alike have commented on the so-called “cliff effect” — to different ends, as you might imagine.

I’ve been puzzling over policy solutions because cliffs or something very like seem inherent in means-tested programs. And to some extent, they are.

But that doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders — or view the only solution as “universal programs” akin to Medicare, as Roger Senserrich at the Connecticut Association for Human Services apparently does.

A recent report by Children’s HealthWatch shows that we could make progress by looking carefully at the real-world causes and effects of cliffs.

The report focuses on SNAP (the food stamp program) and, as one might expect, effects on children’s health when families lose all or a portion of their benefits due to income increases.

The distinction here indicates that SNAP is already structured to create a downward slope, rather than what the word “cliff” brings to mind. Benefits nevertheless dwindle — and eventually disappear — as income rises.

Families can be hit with a double or triple whammy because other safety net and work support programs are also means-tested. A Witness to Hunger, for example, worked overtime for a month, “and they just cut me off food stamps, and they cut my kids’ medical insurance off.”

This may be one reason that income increases are often not enough to compensate for lost SNAP benefits, as results of a CHW survey show.

For example, young children in families who’d altogether lost their benefits were 78% more likely to be food insecure than those in families who’d consistently received them.

For those in families whose benefits had been reduced, the likelihood was 55% greater. And caregivers were 30% more likely not to seek health care for themselves or another family member because they felt they couldn’t afford it.

The CHW report is entitled Punishing Hard Work, though not only wage increases can send families over the cliff.

They can also lose SNAP benefits when a disabled child starts receiving Supplemental Security Income, for example, or when an absent parent starts paying child support. In either case, children should be better off, but may not be.

CHW advocates several federal policy solutions to moderate the cliff effect.

One reflects a recommendation the Food Research and Action Center has made for many years. Use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Low-Cost Food Plan instead of the Thrifty Food Plan as the basis for determining maximum SNAP benefits.

As FRAC has explained — and the Institute of Medicine confirmed — the TFP is unrealistic in various ways. And it understates the costs of foods in the market baskets used to set benefit levels, as CHW itself has shown. Even more so the costs of foods that would make up a healthful diet.

A shift to the Low-Cost Food Plan wouldn’t affect the maximum income threshold, but it would leave families with larger benefits during the tapering-off period.

Two other recommendations address permissible deductions in gross household income. Both would increase the likelihood of a net income below the poverty line — the eligibility cut-off for SNAP.

One would eliminate the cap on deductible housing and utility costs — just $478 a month for most families.

The other would expand the current medical expenses deduction, which is now available only to elderly family members and those who receive disability benefits. Yet families can incur out-of-pocket healthcare costs for other members, even if they’re covered by Medicaid.

These costs often increase with income, as families move to private health insurance plans, as CHW observes. So expanding the medical expense deduction would help preserve one benefit as another shrank.

This is one example of why policymakers should “look across programs to determine … unintended consequences related to increasing family income.”

CHW looks to the Affordable Care Act as a potential vehicle, since it gives states an opportunity to create linkages between healthcare subsidies and other federal benefits.

Well, we know what Congressman Ryan thinks of the ACA. Another “poverty trap,” he calls it.

But if he were really concerned about encouraging people to “begin … getting the dignity of work, rising [sic] their income,” etc., he’d be focusing on the kinds of solutions CHW advocates instead of trying to gut programs like SNAP.

 


Expert Report Indicates Need for Larger Food Stamp Benefits

March 11, 2013

SNAP (the food stamp program) is protected from the across-the-board cuts that will soon kick in. But benefits will be cut anyway, come November, because Congress has twice raided the funds it provided for a temporary boost.

A family of three will lose at least $20 a month, according to new estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Still-eligible families would lose considerably more under the Farm Bills the House Agriculture Committee and the full Senate passed last year.

Yet we now have new, credible evidence that food stamp benefits are already too low for a great many participating families. This, at any rate, is a reasonable inference from an analysis jointly produced by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

The core of the problem is the assumptions built into the Thrifty Food Plan — the collection of market baskets that provide the basis for setting food stamp benefits.

Basically, the TFP assumes that families will make many of their meals from scratch, using low-cost, processed ingredients — a stew of potatoes, carrots and cut up chuck roast, for example, or chili made from slow-cooked dried beans.

In other words, someone in the family will have plenty of time to go grocery shopping, with pauses and backtracks for price comparisons, and the time to peel, chop, braise, bake, etc.

The family will live relatively near a full-service grocery store. And it will have the transportation to get there — and home with bags full of groceries.

It will also live in an area where food costs are relatively low, since we know from previous studies that the bill for a TFP-based food selection in a high-cost city far exceeds the maximum food stamp benefit.

And — something the IOM panel doesn’t mention — the family will have a good-sized refrigerator with ample freezer space. We see this assumption in the recipes and tips the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published for “healthy, thrifty meals.”

The IOM panel concludes that the from-scratch assumption is “out of synch with the practices of most households today.” Surely true for the 62% of food stamp households with children who’ve got at least one working member.

The IOM panel doesn’t come to such firm conclusions about the other assumptions. It merely identifies factors USDA should examine in determining whether food stamp allotments are adequate.

This is what USDA asked for. What it will do with the answer remains to be seen.

What our federal policymakers should do seems to me obvious enough. Beating a dead horse here, I know, but they should first and foremost give up the notion of reducing the deficit by cutting food stamp benefits.

Though the recession and lingering labor market ills have driven SNAP spending upward, it’s expected to drop to nearly the same share of GDP — a common measure of federal spending –as it represented in 2007.

The total cost of our primary nutrition safety net would then be somewhere around one-third of one percent of the value of everything our economy produces.

Beyond this, our policymakers ought finally to come to grips with the fact that the TFP doesn’t provide a suitable basis for determining food stamp benefits.

We’ve got scads of evidence that a large number of recipients can’t stretch them till the end of the month — let alone purchase the foods they’d need for a healthful diet.

A fairly recent study for USDA found that food stamp households had used, on average, 90% of their monthly benefits by the end of the third week — this despite the boost that’s due to expire.

The latest reported results of an annual survey conducted for the agency show that nearly half of households that received food stamp benefits throughout 2011 experienced food insecurity, i.e., were at risk of hunger or even sometimes didn’t have enough food for everyone because they couldn’t afford it.

No wonder that, as Feeding America has reported, 58% of the people who regularly or recurrently visited the food pantries in its network were food stamp recipients.

The Food Research and Action Center has repeatedly recommended that food stamp benefits be based on USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan instead of the TFP — for reasons fully explained in a report it issued last December.

FRAC offers some additional recommendations in a statement triggered by the IOM report, e.g., a change in the outdated assumption that eligible households can spend 30% of their own income to supplement their benefits.

Congress will presumably again address the need for a new Farm Bill this year. So it’s got an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and create a food stamp program that will, at long last, end hunger and malnutrition in this country.

At the very least, it should do no further harm. Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but in this political environment, it is.


Food Stamp Benefits Too Low for a Healthy Diet, New Study Confirms

February 2, 2012

In 2008, Children’s HealthWatch and partners reported on a unique study aimed at finding out whether food stamp benefits enable low-income families to buy what they need for a healthy diet. Now we’ve got a followup.

The answer now, as before is no. And though the followup was conducted only in Philadelphia, the findings are generally applicable to other urban areas, including the District of Columbia.

For both studies, Children’s HealthWatch developed a shopping list based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan — the current basis for setting the maximum value of food stamps.

Then a couple of trained graduate students went to stores of various sizes in four low-income neighborhoods. They collected prices for the items on the shopping list and noted items that weren’t available.

Not surprisingly, small stores didn’t stock anything close to the TFP market basket.* An average of 50% of the items were missing — mostly fresh fruits and vegetables and other “healthy, nutrient rich foods.” Even medium-sized stores stocked, on average, only two-thirds.

But, in a way, what was on the shelves (or not) didn’t matter because food stamp benefits wouldn’t have covered the costs of the TFP items.

A family of four with the maximum benefit would have been short an average of $196 per month. In other words, it would have had to come up with $2,352 per year to eat according to the TFP that met its nutritional needs.

Shortfalls were considerably higher for families who have to rely on nearby small stores — $251 per month or more than $3,300 a year for the family of four.

Recall that the current maximum food stamp benefit reflects the 13.6% boost Congress passed as part of the Recovery Act. Without it, the family of four would have been short an average of $276 per month or somewhat over $3,300 per year.

This is clearly more than a low-income family can afford. Even now, as one the Drexel University’s Witnesses to Hunger says, “The amount we get for three meals a day is not cutting it …. [W]e have to eat unhealthy food.”

The food stamp boost is due to end in November 2013 rather than, as originally expected, some five or so years later. Congress foreshortened its life to offset the costs of some other measures.

Congress could, of course, restore the funds it raided, thus giving the food stamp program enough to pay for the boost until the inflation-adjusted cost of the TFP yielded the same results.

Children’s HealthWatch recommends this. The Food Research and Action Center is campaigning for it as well.

Yet there’d still be a shortfall — at least for a great many families in urban areas. Children’s HealthWatch mentions families in rural communities as well.

The root cause here is the way food stamp benefits are calculated, i.e., costs of the items in the TFP, adjusted annually for nationwide price increases.

FRAC recommended some time ago that food stamp benefits be based on USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan. This plan, it said, is “the lowest of the three government budgets for normal use” and “generally in line with what low and moderate-income families report they need to spend.”

Children’s HealthWatch says the food plan switch should be considered — specifically to more accurately reflect food costs in areas where they’re higher than nationwide averages.

The Low-Cost Food plan now costs, on average, about 23% more than the TFP. This is considerably less than all but the poorest households spend.

The latest food security survey for USDA found that households with incomes above 185% of the federal poverty line — then about $40,790 a year for a family of four — spent 30% more than the TFP created for their size and configuration.

That’s just 1% more than the average shortfall the Children’s HealthWatch researchers found.

The food stamp program is due for reauthorization this year, along with the rest of the complex and controversial Farm Bill. Highly doubtful that Congress will even try to enact a revised law until some time after the elections.

But it’s still good to get the fundamental benefits issues on the radar screen — and keep them there in as many ways as we can.

I, for one, would like to see mystery shoppers armed with TFP grocery lists prowling corner stores and supermarkets all over the country.

* Each of USDA’s food plans is actually 15 different market baskets specifying types and quantities of food for different age and gender groups, plus two each for families of two and four members. The ChildrensWatch shopping list was apparently based on one of the market baskets for a family with two adults and two children.


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.