If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) is the federal government’s largest food assistance program.  It is also one of it’s most successful, not that the average American realizes its success.  In 2012, the most recent year for which I could find statistics, SNAP prevented 10.3 million people from falling into poverty, 4.9 million of whom were children, and lifted an additional 5.2 million people out of deep poverty, including 2.1 million children.  In addition to aiding people at or below the poverty line, SNAP benefits provide a boost to the economy.  A USDA study, corroborated by work done by Mark Zandi, of Moody’s Economy.com, found that every SNAP dollar spent generates from $1.70-$1.80 in GDP increase.  Finally, the SNAP program is very efficiently run, with 90-95% of funding going directly to food assistance, and experiences very low fraud rates, roughly 1% of benefits.  If SNAP is so successful, why does the average American not realize its success and why is there a desire among many politicians to restructure the program and reduce its funding?  I can not answer the second part of that question definitively, but I can suppose that the average American does not know about the success of the SNAP program because several myths about how the program is run and who benefits exist and little has been done to dispel those myths.

 

Myth:  Individuals receiving SNAP benefits are unemployed, able-bodied adults, who are predominantly people of color or immigrants.

Some of that statement is correct.  Most individuals who receive SNAP benefits do not work, but not because they are lazy or gaming the system.  Almost half (44%) of the individuals who receive SNAP are children.  The elderly and disabled comprise another 20 percent, making two thirds of SNAP recipients individuals who would never be counted in any unemployment statistic.  Furthermore, almost 90% of all households getting SNAP benefits contain either a child under the age of 18, a person over the age 60 or a disabled person.  Additionally, in more than half of households receiving SNAP benefits, at least one person is steadily employed and in over 80% of households receiving SNAP benefits at least one person worked either in the year before or the year after receiving benefits.  Concerning households containing an able bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD), exemptions allowing an extension in the amount of time they can receive SNAP benefits expired in most areas of the country in 2016.  These individuals are now restricted to only three months of SNAP benefits during any 36 month period when they are not employed or participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours per week.

As for the ethnic breakdown of individuals receiving SNAP, approximately 40% of those receiving benefits are white, 25% are African-American and 10% are Hispanic.   In 2010,  only approximately 7% of individuals receiving SNAP benefits were foreign-born individuals:  3% were naturalized citizens, 3% were legal, permanent residents, and about 1% were refugees. I will address the extent to which immigrants receive SNAP benefits later in this post.

Myth:  Individuals receive SNAP benefits for years and years.

The SNAP program, unlike Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, also referred to as welfare), does not have a life-time limit.  Consequently if an individual  wishes to reapply for benefits every 3-6 months, his/her household can receive benefits as long as they qualify, so in theory someone could receive SNAP benefits his entire life.  In reality, over half of individuals receiving SNAP benefits stop receiving benefits within 36 months.  One third of those receiving SNAP benefits no longer need the assistance within a year of initially receiving benefits.  The only exception, as already mentioned, are unemployed able bodied adults without dependents who can only receive benefits for 3 months in any given 36 month period.

Myth:  Many of the people receiving SNAP benefits are undocumented immigrants.

Undocumented immigrants are not now and have never been eligible to receive any form of government assistance, including SNAP benefits.  Children born in the United States to parents who are undocumented immigrants could, in certain circumstances, be eligible for benefits; however, the household would only receive the amount of benefit appropriate for the number of American born residents.  Any undocumented immigrant living in that household would not be counted in determining the benefit amount.  Furthermore, with regard to documented immigrants, they are eligible for SNAP benefits only after they have resided in the United States for 5 years.  The only exceptions to the five year rule are documented immigrants who are refugees, asylees, or veterans or active-duty military personnel.

Myth:  The amount of money recipients receive in SNAP benefits is  sizeable and these benefits are easy to receive.

 The SNAP program is a means tested aid program, which means that benefits are provided only to individuals or households which qualify.  Consequently, to receive SNAP benefits, individuals must apply and provide all required documentation of annual income level, deductions and household composition.  The application process must be completed every 3-6 months in order to continue receiving benefits.  To put that into perspective, imagine having to renew your driver’s license at the DMV every 3-6 months, providing all the original documents, like birth certificates, marriage licenses and proof of residency, each time.  Additionally, to be eligible to receive benefits, households have to have incomes lower than 130 percent to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line, depending on the state in which the applicant resides.

The dollar amount of SNAP benefits has decreased over recent years, with more cuts looming on the horizon.  Currently, the average SNAP benefit is roughly $126 per person per month, which equals about $1.40 per person per meal.  No one is living on delicacies on that amount.  As a matter of fact, one third of households receiving SNAP benefits still need to go to a food pantry to supplement their benefits.

Myth:  SNAP dollars can be used to purchase anything.

SNAP benefits can only be used to purchase food items and plants and seeds used to grow food.  These benefits can not be used to buy non food items, like personal care items, diapers, household paper products, pet food and certainly not any alcohol or tobacco product.  Even though SNAP benefits are to be used for food, not all food is approved for purchase.  For instance, no hot, ready to eat foods can be purchased with SNAP benefits.  This means EBT cards can not be used in restaurants, including fast food chains, nor can they be used to purchase ready to consume items in the grocery store, like a rotisserie chicken.  The SNAP Restaurant Meal Program, which is available in only a few states, allows disabled, elderly and homeless recipients of SNAP to purchase meals in approved restaurants using a SNAP EBT card.  Fast food eateries, like McDonalds are not eligible to apply to participate in the SNAP Restaurant Meal Program, so no fast food may be purchased by any one with SNAP benefits.  Finally, SNAP recipients can not purchase food items in just any store selling these items.  They can only use their EBT cards in establishments which have applied and been approved as participating stores or restaurants.  

Myth:  Fraud and waste is widespread in the SNAP Program.

According to a 2016 USDA report, fraud within the SNAP program is quite low, about 1 percent.  The incidence of fraud decreased significantly when plastic EBT cards began being used, instead of paper money.  This switch made the selling of SNAP dollars for cash dollars, trafficking, much more difficult.  In 2010 the Government Accounting Office determined that trafficking had decreased from 3.8 cents per benefits dollar to roughly 1 cent per benefit dollar, where it has continued to remain.  The SNAP program also contains little waste, with 93% of its funding going directly to providing food aid.

 

No federal government assistance program is problem free and often benefits from review and adjustments. As programs go, however, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has proven itself to be successful at providing needed assistance to many while keeping fraud and waste at low levels.  Every year the SNAP program helps keep millions out of poverty, while lifting even more out of deep poverty.  As the program is currently administered, it responds well to the ups and downs of the economy, expanding to help more individuals in tough economic times and shrinking, like it has the past 2-3 years, when the economic outlook brightens.  SNAP dollars carry the added bonus of providing a stimulus to local economies as well, since the spending of SNAP dollars generates an increase in the Gross Domestic Product.  The proven success of the SNAP program makes one question why many politicians are eager to both restructure it, thereby making it less effective, and reduce its operating budget.  This program is not broken.  It does not need to be fixed; it needs to be funded!

Reflections

confettiThe year 2016 is coming to and end and what a year it has been.  Before I take a few days off to enjoy Christmas and the New Year festivities with my family and friends, I wanted to reflect a bit on my journey assisting the food insecure this year.  This past year contained some positive highlights.  Nationally, the US Census Bureau reported in September that the poverty rate in the US declined in 2015 for the first time since 1999.  In my community, the local school district started offering free lunch during the summer to all school age children in our community through the Summer Food Service Program.  Online I found the Click and Carry handle, and with a generous discount from the manufacturer, was able to purchase several dozen to provide to our homeless clients, allowing them to carry away more food when they visit the food pantry. And finally this past month, due to the generous response of my blog readers, the food pantry was able to provide every household receiving food with a sweet treat baking mix–cookies, quick breads or brownies–to brighten their holiday.  We were even able to offer aluminum baking pans to those who didn’t have a pan in which to cook the mix of their choosing.  Itcookies-1900558_640 was very rewarding to me and the other volunteers and staff who pack food for clients to see the happiness and excitement elicited by these unexpected treats.  I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all my friends, neighbors, family and readers who helped make this possible.

2016 also had it’s low spots.  In Pennsylvania, the year started out without a budget negatively impacting a wide range of social services, from school districts to food pantries.  When 2016 began, the state had been without a budget for over 180 days.  Just before 2015 ended, Governor Wolfe announced he would line item veto the budget proposal sent to him by the General Assembly.  Taking this action allowed $23.4 billion to be released, of which $18.4 million went to the State Food Purchase Program, which helps provide food to food pantries.  In early Spring, the House GOP released a budget plan for fiscal year 2017 in which 62% of its proposed budget cuts came from low income, social safety net programs.  Luckily this budget was not approved, but that is perhaps only a temporary reprieve from the ax for these programs, for 2016 came to a close with the election of Donald Trump for President after one of the nastiest Presidential campaigns I have ever witnessed.

I have heard many people say they are glad to see 2016 come to an end and it can’t end soon enough.  I understand what they mean; unfortunately,  I do not share their belief that next year will be better, especially with regard to those in poverty and experiencing food insecurity.  There have been calls for the nation to come together, to work together, to address our nation’s challenges.  I don’t have a problem with that sentiment, as long as that is what happens–both sides talking to each other and listening to each others’ concerns and proposals, then working together through compromise to reach a jointly crafted approach.  I fear, however, that is not what is meant with the call for national unity.  My concern is that what is being requested is for the nation to come together in support of the plans and proposals of the GOP, who will soon control the Legislative and Executive branches of the Federal Government and 33 Governorship (in 25 of those states they also control the State Legislature as well), with little to no dialogue or compromise taking place.  If bipartisan compromise is not what is meant by the call to come together, I think the result will be unfortunate for all Americans.  I guess we will just have to wait and see.

clock-465874_640So as 2016 comes to an end I am trying to remain that same optimist who has always tried to find the silver lining.  Up until now, however, I never realized how close the colors sliver and gray were to each other. My husband keeps reminding me to focus on my sphere of influence–poverty, and in particular food insecurity–so as to not get overwhelmed by the magnitude of change that may be headed our way.  It is good advice and I intend to try to follow it as best as I can.  I will continue to advocate and do whatever else I can for those who are struggling to make ends meet and are experiencing food insecurity.  I will also continue to encourage meaningful dialogue from all points of view with this blog.  Thank you to my readers and to those who comment, either here on the blog or on Facebook or even in person.  I have received inspiration, insight and encouragement from your words.  And again, thank you so much to those who helped us brighten a few families’ holiday by donating baking mixes!

I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season and a happy, healthy New Year!  

garland

 

Worst, Bad Day

car-crashThink back to your worst, bad day.  Nothing went right.  Maybe you overslept and your car wouldn’t start or you missed your bus.  Maybe you had an impossible task to complete for work or school.  Maybe your boss was a jerk or your company was downsizing or you flunked out of college.  Maybe the test results from the doctor were not good, for you or someone you love.  There are countless ways you could have a worst, bad day.

Now think about how it made you feel.  Did you want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers, cry, yell at someone?  Could you feel the stress crawling on your body?  Was your heart rate elevated?  Did you have trouble thinking about anything but the cause of your toubles?  How did you cope?  Did you treat yourself to an ice cream cone, a glass of wine or a meal out?  Did you take a mental health break and go home and crawl under the covers?  Did you call on your family or friends for help?  Whatever you did, you got through it.  Maybe it took longer than a day, but you were able to put it past you, move on.

Now imagine that worst, bad day as a typical day for you.  Imagine that the level of stress and banana-splitfrustration or uncertainty you faced on that worst, bad day, you face most days of your life.  Additionally, imagine that many of the coping mechanisms you used to get you through that worst, bad day are not available to you.  You don’t have any friends or family who can help you in any way except listen or commiserate.  You can’t afford to take time out for a mental health break.  You do not have the money to treat yourself to ice cream, alcohol or a meal out and if you do decide, “What the heck!  It’s been a really bad day and I deserve a treat.”, you are certain to experience disapproval from someone who does not feel you are deserving of that treat, even after a bad day.  Welcome to the reality of someone living in poverty.

Understanding that people in poverty probably live stressful lives is not very difficult for most people to do.  They understand how stressful life can be with an adequate household income, and know it would probably be worse with less income.  What most people do not realize is that living with that level of stress day in and day out affects one’s brain and impairs one’s cognitive abilities.  In August 2013 researchers published the results of a study, that stated that “poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty”.   This thinking-mancondition the researchers called bandwidth poverty.  When someone suffers from bandwidth poverty, s/he is spending most of his or her cognitive abilities figuring out how to put food on the table or pay bills and it becomes nearly impossible to think about the future and make long term plans.  The study demonstrated that living in poverty created a mental stress that was equal to losing 13 IQ points, or stated another way, losing a whole night’s sleep.  I have tried to function on little to no sleep and it was not easy.  I can not imagine doing it day after day.

How Poverty Taxes the Brain

As a result of experiencing bandwidth poverty, performing basic life skills becomes incredibly difficult, resulting in faulty choices being made.  When one’s mental capacity to handle a situation is overburdened, he or she is more likely to forget things, like appointments, setting alarm clocks or even paying bills on time.  S/he will have less self control, which may result in that person giving in to temptations.  Parenting skills will suffer,alarm-clock as a person with bandwidth poverty will have less patience and a shorter attention span for their children.  Long-term planning activities, like saving money, getting more education or searching for a new job decome too taxing to continue or cease to even be considered. Of course this pattern of behavior feeds right back into the negative stereotype that people in poverty make bad decisions, and are therefore, soley responsible for their situation.  In reality, however, the effects of bandwidth poverty create an insidious cycle, trapping those living in poverty in a succession of bad decisions, because they are incapable of thinking about and planning for the future.

This is Your Stressed-Out Brain on Scarcity

It is easy to judge the actions of people in poverty from the context of a life where ends meet, even if you have to work hard to make ends meet and they meet just barely.  It is easy to see how you would do it differently, how you would save and plan long term to pull yourself out of that terrible situation.  You can see the possible path out, because you have the luxury of the mental bandwidth necessary to formulate those plans, since you don’t have to spend a majority of your time trying to figure out how to put dinner on the table or keep your lights and heat on and a roof over your head.  Knowing what we now know from this study I once again argue for a strengthened social safety net.  We need one that provides those in poverty with the support necessary to allow them to regain the required bandwidth to plan for the future and enact those plans, so that they can pull themselves out of poverty.

I am including below one last link.  I encourage you to read it.  The author is Linda Tirado, who has lived in poverty.  I have also heard her speak on NPR and she has written a book called Hand to Mouth:  Living in Bootstrap America.  The piece is a little rough around the edges, but it gives a firsthand look into the life of someone who lives in poverty.

Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts

It Takes Two Feet

fall-woodsRecently I was reading through a Facebook conversation about whether someone who paid his or her fair share of federal income tax was less intelligent than someone who was able, through aggressive use of loopholes in the tax code, to avoid paying any federal income tax.  (Don’t worry we aren’t going there.)  One of the responders asked the original poster if he thought it would be better to keep as much of his money as possible so that he could personally give to organizations and causes he wanted to support, instead of having the Federal Government spend his money for him.  The implication in his query is that our current Federal Government it too large and operates in an inefficient, even corrupt manner, wasting our hard earned money.  The questioner believes the solution to this perceived problem is a smaller Federal Government, which can operate more efficiently, with less waste and corruption.  This smaller Federal Government is able to exist because much of the services provided by the larger Federal Government have been delegated to the states, private sector or charities.  Shrinking the size of the Federal Government is exactly what Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, is trying to do when he advocates using charity as the solution to poverty.  Using charities alone to solve a problem as large and as complex as poverty, is fraught with complications, however, and will never succeed in bringing about the desired result of lowering poverty rates.

The first reason charities alone will be unable to eradicate poverty is that charities often focus on the symptoms of the problem, not the causes.  In the case of poverty, charities address the symptoms of poverty by providing those in need with food, affordable housing, clothing and utility assistance to name a few areas of assistance.  This assistance provides the recipient with immediate relief from the problem at hand, which is beneficial, however, the charity has only provided a temporary fix for the person in poverty.  In all likelihood the person in need will be back the next month to get another shopping cart full of food or utility assistance.  The act of charitable giving has done nothing to address the reasons the person in poverty is in the situation s/he is in and in a way has encouraged that individual to remain dependent on the temporary aid provided.

Another complication with relying on charities to solve the problem of poverty concernspumpkins the inequities that inevitably arise from using this approach to solving a complex problem.  These inequities are, for the most part not intentional, but nonetheless, exist and are very problematic.  Donations will vary from geographic location to geographic location or for that matter from season to season.  Consequently charitable organizations in one part of the country may be much better able to assist those in poverty than organizations located in other areas.  Additionally, the amount of aid a charity can provide may vary throughout the year as giving fluxuates.  Furthermore, donors elect to donate to causes that interest them, often times giving to the organization that has the more effective advertising campaign or hook, but that is not always assisting the greatest need.  What results from relying on charities to solve the problem of poverty is an approach that is unequal on many levels and may even serve to exacerbate the problem in certain locations.

Part of the reason for the inequality created by relying on charities to address the problem of poverty is the reduction in accountability and public review that results from moving from a governmental approach to a charitable one.  When any government spends funds it is accountable for where and how the money is spent.  Furthermore, the funds are distributed nationwide, better ensuring pockets of extreme need, caused by lack of charitable resources, do not exist.  These agencies have to keep administrative costs low and make sure the funds they use benefit the most people.  With charities, sometimes the proportion of a donation that is used for assisting someone in need versus the amount used for administrative or fundraising costs is unclear.  Additionally, charities are beholden to their donors for the necessary funds to operate.  Consequently, to ensure a steady stream of donations, charities must be aware of their donors’ expectations for the desired results of their donation.  This desire to please donors may cause charities to inadvertently tailor their operations to gain the approval of their donors rather than address the needs of their recipients.

wine-leafThe final and perhaps most important reason it is ill-advised to use charities to solve a problem as large and complex as poverty is that charities hinder or delay the social change and justice that must happen before any real progress in diminishing poverty can be seen.  Donating to a charity fighting poverty distracts donors from fighting the inequities in society that cause poverty in the first place.  The donor feels good, like s/he is making a difference in the overall problem, when really all s/he is doing is providing temporary relief.  Furthermore, the act of providing temporary assistance often masks the true depth of these inequities.  Those in need receive just enough to allow them to become complacent with their situation and to lessen the outrage they as well as the rest of society might otherwise feel.  When you couple the complacency of the person in need with the sense of having helped of the donor, society fails to realize the true depth of the problem, and therefore, does not demand action to correct the inequities that allow the injustice to continue to exist.

Lest anyone be confused, I am not building a case against charity.  I volunteer with a charitable organization and they do wonderful, necessary work, as do most charities.  The point I am making is that charitable anti poverty organizations can not be expected to do the heavy lifting needed to solve or even lower poverty alone.  Charities working alone to lower poverty present an unworkable solution that is unfair to both the needy and the charities which seek to help them.  Even the United States Conference of Catholic Bishopsgourds understands that charity alone will not solve the problem of poverty.  The bishops have created “The Two Feet of Love in Action”, stating one needs two feet to walk the path of love.  In the flyer explaining their philosophy, they discuss what the two feet represent:  one assisting with charitable organizations to help meet immediate basic needs and the other to work for social justice which will serve to remove the causes of poverty and strengthen societal structures.  Charities are extremely adept at alleviating individuals’ immediate needs, but to grapple with the enormity of social injustice requires the broad, impartial reach of the Federal Government.  The struggle also requires you to help propel BOTH feet of love, charity AND social justice, forward.

Make Me Look Normal

This week when I was volunteering at the food pantry one of our homeless clients stopped in to let us know that he had gotten a job.  He was happy and proud of himself and wanted to share his good news, but he also had a request.  He wanted to know if we had any wipes so he could keep himself cleaned up and he wanted some food, especially food he could take to work to make him “look normal” to his coworkers.  Luckily we were able to provide both due to recent donations.  We gave him some wipes and a few cans of Chef Boyardee and stew and a can of Spam.  We even gave him a cantaloupe to celebrate of his good news!  Overall this interaction was positive, but his request to “look normal” tug at my heartstrings.  All he wanted was what most of us take for granted; he wanted to fit in, to be an accepted, productive member of society.

In our society we have a tendency to ignore or even shame people in poverty.  We look pasthomeless-man-free-picture-for-blogs-1[1] the homeless person sitting on the sidewalk or avoid making eye contact with the mother with the child who is asking for something to eat because he is hungry.  Or worse, we look at them with disgust or harsh judgement.  There are many reasons why we behave in this manner.  Maybe we are frustrated because we are working hard and not getting ahead and we worry that one day that could all too easily be us.  Or maybe we look away because we desperately want to be of assistance, but feel powerless to truly help these folks out of their situation.  Some may tell themselves this homeless person or single mother is responsible for his or her situation due to the poor decisions he or she has made in life, and therefore deserves no further consideration.  Whatever our rationale, the result of our actions is to push people living in poverty to the edges of society, to segregate them.

I admit that at times have been guilty of such actions myself.  I admit to looking past a homeless person or pretending not to hear the heartache in a mother’s voice as she responds to her child’s pleas of hunger.  I regretfully chose to look away because, at best, I could only help them in the moment, but do nothing to change their situation.  Initially, when I started volunteering in the food pantry I was worried about how to interact with the clients.  I didn’t want them to feel I was patronizing or pitying them.  In the end I settled my nerves by telling myself to just smile and greet them, to acknowledge them like I would any other person I would meet in my day.  I didn’t quite understand the power of that act until our client’s request to want to “look normal.”  He didn’t want anything special.  He just wanted to be regarded and treated like everyone else.  He is not alone, as I imagine most people living in poverty, in addition to wanting a path out of poverty, want to be treated with humanity and acceptance.

This longing to appear “normal”, I’m sure,  is felt strongly by children.  They may not understand why some children can have so much, but they do not.  Whenever we can we try to make sure a client with children gets the boxed mac and cheese with the Star War noodles or the Frosted Flakes.  We sometimes get donated boxes of Little Debbie birthday-cakesnack cakes or sweets that are out of season, like the packaged peppermint bark we got right after Christmas.  It is always fun slipping these items into a family’s monthly groceries, knowing the joy it will bring to a little one whose life holds few treats.  This past week we were able to ensure a young girl got a birthday party thanks to someone who donated a birthday party in a bag, which included cake mix, birthday candles, plates and napkins. (What a great idea this is!)  This young lady’s birthday party will be on Saturday and I will happily think of her getting to celebrate her birthday like a “normal” kid.

When I think what a food pantry provides I have been defining my answer in the broadest terms.  A food pantry provides food and other supplies to someone who is in need.  After this exchange with our homeless client, I realize what we provide is more than just food.  This gentleman came back to us to share his success, not only because he needed items, but because he knew he would be acknowledged and treated “normally”, that we would be happy for him and celebrate, as well as help him with his request.  One doesn’t have to volunteer in a food pantry, however, to have this interaction with people in poverty.  The next time you see someone struggling with poverty, certainly assist them if you can, but equally important, remember they want to be seen and treated as “normal”.  A smile and a friendly greeting can go a long way in making someone feel that they are accepted and belong.

There is a Better Way, but This is Not It

rich manThe other day, as I sat down with my coffee to look over the morning’s news, the following headline caught my eye, 71% of Americans Believe the Economy is ‘Rigged’.  The poll, conducted by Marketplace and Edison Research, found that 71% of Americans believe the economy has been manipulated so that it favors some in society while leaving others at a decided disadvantage.  Interestingly, the answer for this majority of Americans did not change whether they were black, white or Hispanic, nor whether they identified themselves as a Republican, Democrat or Independent.  This poll caught my eye, partly because I count myself among the 71% of Americans who believe the economy is rigged, but also because I have been reading critiques of the contents of House Republicans’ recently released antipoverty plan, a 39 page document entitled “A Better Way”.  Based on what I have read about the proposals in this document, I would argue the plan presents a perfect example of why so many Americans believe the economy is rigged.

When I first heard the House GOP had issued an antipoverty plan I was curious about what it proposed.  I was optimistic as a result of Paul Ryan’s apology for calling poor people “takers”, which he issued in March.  In the past Speaker Ryan has referred to poverty as “culture problem” and viewed those living in poverty as having a moral failing.  In the speech in which he issued the apology, he stated that he had spent more time listening to people living in poverty and realized that “Most people don’t want to be dependent.”  His observation matches the experience I have had interacting with clients at the food pantry.  Unfortunately, after having read several articles about the House GOP antipoverty plan, I realize that Ryan’s apology signals no shift in House Republicans’ thinking about the causes of poverty or the proposed solutions for moving people out of poverty.  The plan is filled with proposals that will often do more harm than good, neglects to address actions that need to be taken and fails to reconcile its proposals with the House GOP budget plan, which proposed drastic cuts in programs for Americans with low and moderate incomes.

In spite of the fact that House Republicans vowed to fight poverty, this antipoverty planlunchbox contains proposals that will often negatively impact those it purports to assist.  For instance, proposals in the plan seek to weaken nutrition standards for school lunches as well as reduce access to free meals for students in need, while raising administrative costs and burdens.  Also proposed in the antipoverty plan is a shift to funding school lunches as a block grant.  I find this particularly alarming, because block grants in the past often result in unequal access to programs nationwide and a decrease in benefits overall.  Targeting the school lunch program for cuts is particularly troubling, as this program benefits children, a group most Americans agree should receive assistance.  Additionally, the school lunch program has successfully lessened childhood hunger and ensured children are nutritionally prepared to meet their school day.

abandonned factoryThe second concern I have with Ryan’s antipoverty plan is that while it seeks to reward being employed, the plan fails to address the minimum wage at all.  Many Americans, including numerous people in Ryan’s own district, have lost good paying unionized manufacturing jobs as factories have closed and manufacturing jobs have moved oversees.  When those who have found themselves unemployed find employment, what they find are often positions in the service industry which pays minimum wage.  As I have said before, a full time minimum wage job barely keeps a single person without dependents above the poverty line, but someone with a family and that same job would certainly be in poverty with no chance to pull his or her family out of poverty on such a meager salary.  For an antipoverty plan that champions working as the path out of poverty, to neglect to advocate for a living wage, or even a modest raise to the minimum wage is inexcusable.

“And the way I argue about this [reforming poverty programs] is:  This is not a budget-cutting exercise.  Take the same amount of money.  It should be a life-saving exercise.  And that means the government can provide resources.  It can be the supply lines.”

Paul Ryan at the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity, January 9, 2016

Finally, the fact that the House GOP’s antipoverty plan fails to take into account this year’s House GOP budget plan, approved in March by the House Budget Committee’s GOP majority, is of particular concern.  This budget plan proposes $3.7 trillion in cuts to programs which benefit low and moderate income Americans.  By 2026 programs to assist low income Americans would lose 42% of their currently inadequate funding.  Cuts to these programs alone account for 62% of the plan’s budget cuts.  Among the programs targeted for cuts is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which would see cuts that would cause millions of families to cease to receive any SNAP assistance and/or further reduce benefit amounts for tens of millions of families.  Additionally, low income Americans will see cuts in assistance for healthcare and higher education to name a few other areas targeted for budget cuts.  The cuts proposed for low income programs in the House GOP’s budget plan are unprecedented in magnitude and yet the House GOP budget manages to preserve all current tax expenditures which tend to favor the wealthy.  Luckily, this budget was not approved this year, but what is evident from this budget plan is that inconsistencies exist between the House Republicans’ vow to fight poverty and the actual actions they proposed with regard to those living in poverty.

Consequently, I have come to the conclusion that contrary to what Speaker Ryan says about having evolved on his views of poverty and vowing to fight poverty, the antipoverty and budgetary proposals put forth by the House GOP paint a different picture.  Unfortunately the picture these documents paint is of a system stacked against those less fortunate.  Speaker Ryan and the House GOP’s antipoverty plan proposes little to assist those in poverty out of poverty or address the root causes of poverty.  At the same time these same legislators propose a budgetary plan that slashes to the bone some of the very programs that help those in poverty make ends meet.  With proposals like these, it is easy to understand why almost three-fourths of Americans think the economy is rigged.

 

 

 

To Answer Your Question

Last week I was asked by a reader what determined poverty.  She specifically wanted to know what criterion the government used to label someone as suffering from poverty.  I answered her question briefly, but as I was doing so realized it would probably be beneficial to any reader as well as myself to explain how the government arrives at the Official Poverty Measure it publishes annually.  In addition to explaining the formula and the history of how it came to be used, I will discuss some of the criticism, from liberals and conservatives, surrounding this measure, as well as the suggestions that have been binary peopleproposed in recent years to correct some of the faults associated with the Official Poverty Measure.

Every year the United States Census Bureau publishes poverty thresholds, which are a list of minimum level household incomes deemed adequate on which to exist.  These thresholds measure pre tax cash income and vary based on family size, composition and age of householder.  Any household with a gross annual income below the poverty threshold for a household matching its size and composition is considered to be in poverty.  For my household, with a family unit of 4, two of which are children under the age of 18, the poverty threshold is $24,036.  But where does that dollar figure come from?

In 1963 Mollie Orshansky, who worked for the Social Security Administration, was compiling a report on childhood poverty, but at the time no good system for measuring poverty existed.  To help with her report Ms. Orshansky created a measurement using a set of nutrition guidelines established by the Department of Agriculture called the Economy Food Plan.  The Economy Food Plan (now called the Thrifty Food Plan) was designed as an emergency use, short term cost guideline for families living on a meager budget.  In 1955 the Department of Agriculture reported that the average American family spent one third of its income on food, so Orshansky took the dollar amount of the Economy Food Plan and multiplied it by 3 to arrive at the poverty threshold for a given household size.  To this day, this is the method the U. S. Census Bureau uses to calculate annual poverty thresholds.  The threshold is updated annually, however, for changes in the price of food using thevintage housewife Consumer Price Index.

Even though the United States government has been using Orshansky’s method for determining annual poverty thresholds for over 50 years, this system has been criticized by both liberals and conservatives.  The first criticism centers on the use of the Economy Food Plan as the basis for establishing the poverty thresholds.  The cost of food over the past 50 years has dropped and the average American household no longer spends one third of its income on food.  Current estimates are that U. S. households spend only about 7% of their income on food.  During the same time, the cost of other household expenditures, like transportation, has risen greatly.  Another problem with relying on the Economy Food Plan as a basis for computing the poverty thresholds is that this guideline assumed the family would eat no meals outside of the home and that the household included a housewife who was a careful shopper and skilled cook who could stretch the family’s food budget as far as it could go.  For any of a variety of reasons this scenario exists in few American households today.

The second area of criticism of this method for determining poverty numbers concerns how the annual household incomes are calculated and applied.  When determining a household’s annual income, the Census Bureau uses that household’s gross annual cash income.   Not included in that figure are any noncash benefits households might receive, like SNAP or housing subsidies.  Additionally, the annual household income does not exclude household resources used for other non discretionary expenses, like tax payments, child support payments or out-of-pocket medical expenses, which can have a considerable impact on a household’s budget.  Finally, these poverty thresholds are national numbers.  In other words, they do not vary geographically,  even though the cost of living can vary greatly from one location in the United States to another.

In 1992, after years of criticism of the method for measuring poverty, Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to convene a group consisting of academics and policy planners to study the issue and make recommendations.  The group, called The Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance, released its’ report, Measuring Poverty:  A New Approach, in 1995.  The panel recommended that the poverty threshold reflect the amount of money needed to meet a households’ basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and a little more for other necessary expenses.  They stated that all resources available to meet the household needs should be counted, including noncash benefits like tax credits, SNAP and housing subsidies.  Additionally, they recommended that any funds not available to meet the needs in the threshold, because they are to be used for other expenses like taxes, out of pocket healthcare costs or child support payments, not be counted as resources.  Finally the panel’s report urged that the thresholds should vary geographically to reflect the differing costs of meeting the needs in the threshold that exist throughout the United States.

This report recommends addressing almost all of the major complaints expressed about donkey elephantthe poverty thresholds; however, for a decade and a half after the report’s release the panel’s recommendations were by and large ignored as neither Republican nor Democrat wanted to touch this political third rail topic.  Finally, in 2011, the Obama administration started publishing a supplemental poverty measure (SPM) based largely on the recommendations of the NAS panel.  The SPM is not the official measure of poverty and is not used when determining eligibility for poverty programs or allocation of funds for poverty programs; however it does give an alternative method to assess the status of low income American households.  Like the poverty thresholds, the SPM is published annually.  The report that accompanies the SPM data explains the difference between the Official Poverty Measure numbers and the SPM numbers,  as well as discusses the effects of noncash benefits, taxes and other nondiscretionary expenses on the economic well being of low income households.

Using the Supplemental Poverty Measures for 2014, which are the most recent numbers available, the percentage of Americans in poverty is higher than the Official Poverty Measure report, 15.3 % and 14.9% respectively.  What do either of these percentages tell us, really?  The SPM is a step in the right direction; however, the problem with both the Official Poverty Measure and the SPM is that they are an absolute measure, a line.  Make abaltimore dollar above the line and you are not considered to be in poverty, but your situation will likely not be any different than the person making $2 less than you who is considered to be below the poverty line.  A line only provides economic data.  It does not provide any information about what the person in poverty, or even just above the line, is experiencing, why he is there or show long he has been there.  This information would be vital in formulating any plan to address poverty.  To truly understand poverty, any measurement of it must encompass more than just a line.  Consequently, the United States government should continue to strive for a more accurate assessment of poverty.

Hidden From View

Over the past few weeks, I have written about generational and situational poverty.  Whenwork-222768_640 I first started reading about these types of poverty, my assumption was that most people who lived in poverty as adults had grown up in poverty.  In other words, that generational poverty was the most prevalent type of poverty in the United States.  Historically this may have been the case and certainly in places like Appalachia, the deep South and many inner cities, people still suffer from generational poverty.  Recent research, however, conducted independently by two professors, Stephen Pimpare currently at the University of New Hampshire and Mark Rank at Washington University, suggests that situational poverty is much more prevalent, and alarmingly, affects far more people than current Census Bureau poverty statistics reflect.

In a piece posted on TalkPoverty.Org, entitled Generational Poverty the Exception, Not the Rule, Pimpare contends that crippling generational poverty, although still in existence in the United States, is a much smaller percentage of the 15% of the population the Census Bureau considers poor.  While Pimpare’s contention on the surface sounds promising, he goes on to suggest that even though generational poverty is the exception to the rule, poverty is far more common in today’s society than we might realize.  His research shows that from 2009-2011 nearly one third of all Americans were poor at least once for more than 2 months.  This number is more than twice the Census Bureau’s poverty rate.  Pimpare’s piece additionally cites the research of Mark Rank, which shows that almost 40% of Americans between the ages of 25 to 60 will be poor at least one year during that span of time in their life.  When poverty is examined using Pimpare’s and Rank’s research, the picture that emerges is a very troubling one.  Far more Americans are touched by poverty than previously thought.

While more Americans’ lives are impacted by poverty, few of them will suffer chronic poverty that lasts for years.  In an article for The Atlantic, Jordan Weissman, citing research conducted by Rank and colleagues Thomas Hirschl of Cornell and Kirk Foster of the University of South Carolina, state that only 11.6% of Americans between the ages 25 and 60 will experience poverty for 5 or more years.  These numbers too sound promising, but the research also shows that many Americans slip in and out of poverty during these same years.  This subset of the population may not be classified as poor, but their economic situation is certainly fragile.  Since the beginning of the Great Recession, continuing through the sluggish recovery, economic insecurity for American households has climbed.  Many Americans have experienced a stagnation in wages or the loss of a job coupled with prolonged unemployment.  One in four Americans have no savings at all.  They live a single crisis away from sliding into poverty that will be difficult from which to emerge.

suburbsWith almost 40% of the population experiencing poverty for at least 1 year during the ages 25 to 60, the likelihood exists that most Americans know someone who has experienced poverty, or quite possibly have firsthand experience.  The face of poverty today could very likely look like me or you.  According to analysis of Census data done by the Brookings Institute, so far in the 21st century, more than two thirds of the increase in poverty rates have occurred in suburban households.  In fact in 2013 suburban poverty levels exceeded urban areas.  This dramatic rise in suburban poverty may surprise some, because unlike other types of poverty, suburban poverty is often hidden on tree-lined streets in developments that look just like mine.

Suburban Poverty, Hidden on Tree-Lined Streets by Jennifer Swartvagher

The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans by Neal Gabler

I am not surprised suburban poverty exsists, but I am taken aback by how prevalent it is.  I believe special attention needs to be given to addressing this problem, and not because the people experiencing suburban poverty look like me.  To begin with, suburbs are ill equipped to handle large impoverished communities.  Most governmental and philanthropic agencies offering poverty assistance are located in urban centers.  Furthermore, those agencies that are located in suburbs are currently overwhelmed by the increase in demand for services.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as a society we do not want large numbers of this subset of the population that dips in and out of poverty to slip permanently into poverty.  To prevent that permanent downward spiral the factors that cause so many to subsist near the poverty level, like stagnant wages, the disappearance of white collar jobs and staggering levels of student debt must be addressed.  In the meantime, societal safety net programs must be strengthened and eligibility requirements need to be overhauled.

What I have presented here is strictly an overview of this problem.  I encourage you to read the articles I have linked to in this post.  I have also been reading a book by Sasha Abramsky, entitled The American Way of Poverty, which endeavors to pick up where Michael Harrington left off with his groundbreaking work, The Other America.  I have not quite finished Abramsky’s book, but in the last section of the book he offers numerous solutions to address many of the problems I have mentioned as well as others.  As I read this section I am struck by both how simple many of these solutions would be to enact and how little if any cost would be involved in their enactment.  Many of the solutions would be funded using money that is already being spent to address the end results of poverty, which is usually a more costly response than preventing the problem initially.  Even if you do not read the book in its entirety, I encourage you to examine the last section.

Dennis

4th grade classA group of alumni from my elementary school have been planning a reunion for all former students of this school.  The school is no longer open, but when I attended it housed grades 1-4, one classroom for each grade.  When my dad attended that same school it housed grades 1-8, with two grades per classroom, so as you can imagine the school was a small tight-knit community.  Sadly, I will not be able to attend the reunion, but being included in the Facebook discussion about the reunion and memories of our little school and community has caused me to do a bit of reminiscing myself.  Once we completed fourth grade and my class continued on to the much bigger middle school, I had fewer and fewer classes with many of my former classmates, and I lost track of many of them as the years passed.

As my mind flipped through snapshots of memories from that little school one of the memories I recalled involved a classmate named Dennis.  Dennis lived about a mile down the road from me and rode my bus.  We lived in the country and the bus stopped for most children right in front of their houses, but Dennis lived in a small grouping of houses.  Several kids got on the bus at Dennis’ stop, so I was never sure which house belonged to his family.  The community in which Dennis lived was called The Hole.  Everyone called it 3rd grade halloweenthat, including the people who lived there.  It is still called that today.  Back in elementary school, my little person’s mind assumed it was called that because a large pit existed somewhere back in this wooded enclave of homes.

When I was in the third grade I accompanied a classmate and her mother down the dirt road into The Hole to drop off some things to someone who lived there.  It was during that trip that I realized my assumption about the reason for the name of this community was very wrong.  As I looked out the car window I saw what I at first took as shelters for animals, ramshackle buildings with corrugated tin roofs, patched together sometimes with what looked like only plywood.  They looked as if a strong wind might knock them over and that they would be unable to keep out the cold in the winter.  The buildings were not painted and there was no grass to be found.  It was only when someone exited one of the buildings that I realized they were houses, and in one of these houses Dennis lived.

I remember feeling a jumble of emotions, probably more than my young mind could process, and being left confused and sad that people, including my classmate, had to live in such conditions.  As I thought about what Dennis’ life outside of school might be like, I remember thinking that his home life might explain why he often acted out in school.   That day I also realized that The Hole wasn’t called The Hole because it was located near an old quarry.  While I may not have completely understood at the time, I grew to understand that the name of this grouping of houses where families lived was a metaphor for the struggle these families, including this eight year old boy, living in generational poverty had to face on a daily basis.  For him and anyone else living there to succeed in life, they first had to climb out of the hole.

The type of poverty Dennis experienced, generational, has marked differences from the situational poverty experienced by the homeless gentleman from last week’s post.  Generational poverty persists over two or more generations and people who experience this type of poverty often lack a belief that life can ever be better.  No one around Dennis probably thought their life, or his, could get better.  Consequently, Dennis in all likelihood was not urged to do well in school and he probably received little encouragement to strive for a better life.  I do not know what became of Dennis, but I have my guesses, none of which are good.

As I continue to research on these two main types of poverty, I am beginning to comprehend that the policies and programs needed to address generational poverty must be more complex, addressing more than just poverty.  To successfully attempt to alleviate this type of poverty, people’s mindset must be changed.  Those experiencing generational poverty must be given hope that their lives can get better and reason to believe that working toward a better life can reap rewards.  The change in mindset does not just need to happen with those experiencing generational poverty, however.  The whole of society needs to come to the realization that social justice does not exist in the United States.  The playing field is not level.  Until the whole of society accepts that truth and chooses to work to rectify the inequity we all suffer as a nation.

Would You Eat That Cold?

canned soup2Tuesday my co-volunteer and I played “Would You Eat That Cold?” which is what we ask each other when we have to pack food for a homeless person who has no way of heating their food.  This week we also played the companion games, “Is This Too Heavy to Carry?” and ” How Long Do You Think This Can Last Unrefrigerated?” These companion games were necessary because the homeless gentleman we were assisting was without transportation and could only take what he could carry.  In addition, he lacked a refrigerator, cooler, or any other way to keep his food cold.  As games go, these are not a very fun.  This is the second time we have had to play them this month and at least the third time this year.  Each time we have played them, it has been with a different person.

Although this gentleman was new to me, he was not unfamiliar to my co-volunteer, who has been volunteering at the food pantry longer than I have.  This is the first time he has come to us homeless, however.  His experience tugged at our heartstrings.  He had been on the right path.  He attended college for three years, but left his education to care for his mother who was suffering from cancer.  As an only child, he was the only one she had.  He cared for her for a year and a half until she passed.  My co-volunteer characterized this man as an intelligent, engaging person, a caring father and loving son.  Unfortunately, in recent years he has been unable to find permanent employment and has chosen to trust people who have taken advantage of his generosity.  So now he finds himself homeless.  We gave him what we could, making sure the box wasn’t too heavy, and sent him to get some help with shelter.  Hopefully he will find a better housing situation and we will see him back in a few weeks to get a more regular allotment of food.

The type poverty our homeless gentleman is experiencing is classified as situational homeless-man-free-picture-for-blogs-1[1]poverty, which is defined as a period of being poor caused by situational factors like job loss, illness, divorce or natural disaster.  While he may not have had many extras as a child and young adult, he did not live in poverty; however, due to situational factors like having to take care of his mother during her illness and current difficulty finding employment, he now finds himself homeless and living in poverty.  If he could receive the necessary temporary assistance and find a permanent full time job that paid a living wage, so that he could begin to build a financial cushion, the likelihood exists that he would lift himself out of poverty.

I have just started researching the various types of poverty, and by types of poverty I do not mean the stratifications, like deep poverty, about which I’ve previously written.  These different types of poverty speak to the circumstances surrounding why a person is experiencing poverty and the characteristics of his or her experience.  My research is focusing on two types of poverty–situational and generational.  I believe it is important to understand the characteristics of each type of poverty, because these characteristics should be used to inform any policy or program created to assist those experiencing poverty.  Additionally, understanding the differences in types of poverty, that there even are differences, brings the realization that policies and programs to address poverty and its causes can not be one size fits all.  In the next week or so I plan to write a post sharing what I have learned about these two common types of poverty.