Kick the Can

mom kids walkingI remember as a kid playing kick the can with my mother.  Usually we played this game on our way back from a walk on a country road.  At this point in the walk I was probably tired and complaining about having to walk, when my sister could either be carried or was already riding in a stroller.  My mother would find an aluminum can (or bottle cap or some other kickable item) on the side of the road and encourage me to kick it, then run after it and kick it again.  And before I knew it, we would be almost home.  My version of kick the can down the road is a very literal one, as well as one that solves the problem at hand–pacifying a complaining child.  There is, however, another meaning to kick the can down the road, namely to procrastinate, or in more political terms, to avoid solving a contentious problem with the hope that someone else will address it.  Politicians often engage in the figurative sport of kicking the can down the road, unfortunately.  This procrastination is not new.  Think about how long in our history the problem of slavery was kicked down the road, and some would argue that remnants of the can are still being kicked today.

The danger with avoiding crafting a solution to a difficult problem is the creation of unintended symptomatic problems, which compound the original problem.  Here is a case in point I remember from a Child Psychology course I took in college.  In this class we were discussing the pros and cons of children attending daycare rather than staying home with a parent.  As part of the discussion, the professor talked about the state of daycare in the United States at the time, particularly for low income working families and single parents.  He said that children being left in the care of someone other than a parent or close family member isn’t harmful to the child per se.  What makes daycarechildcare potentially detrimental to the child are the conditions and quality of daycare the child attends. He explained that quality day care facilities, which provide a good staff to child ratio and are clean and interactive, pose little harm to children who attend.  Unfortunately, he said, this type of daycare facility is expensive and the United States lacks an adequate number of these quality, affordable daycare facilities, especially for low income working families.  He conjectured that if politicians ensured funding for adequate, quality daycare for low income families, the cost of doing so would be cheaper than addressing the more costly unintended problems, like poor academic performance, which awaited these children who lacked quality daycare.

This professor also contended that this reluctance to provide funding to address a solvable problem in favor of waiting until that manageable problem mushroomed into numerous, more complex problems with costlier solutions, is quite commonplace in our country.  I have to admit that I see truth in his argument with regard to poverty.  Rather than address the primary problem of poverty by working to create more jobs, to ensure an adequately trained and educated workforce, and to guarantee a livable wage for instance, our legislators have sought to address the symptomatic problems of poverty like unaffordable housing and healthcare costs or food insecurity.  I would say this approach is better than not smashed canaddressing poverty at all, except now legislators have begun to chop away at the supports that have been put in place to address these symptomatic problems, which brings me back to kicking the can down the road.

Recent proposals from the current Administration and Congress, like the proposed Farm Bill and HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s proposal to impose work requirements for HUD programs, demonstrate the current Administration and Congressional leadership’s lack of desire to now address even the symptomatic problems of poverty.  In other words they are opting to kick the can down the road, and in doing so are ensuring the original problem persists.  Only this time, because they are also removing the supports for the programs which address the symptoms of the poverty,  these legislators are guaranteeing that the primary problem, poverty, will not only persist, but will grown and worsen.  At some point we must stop playing games with people’s lives.

Below I have included some links to sources which provide an overview to the proposed Farm Bill and how it will affect those who experience poverty.

  • For a brief overview of the effects of the proposed Farm Bill on the SNAP click here.
  • For an in depth overview of the effects of the proposed Farm Bill on the SNAP click here.  It is a lengthy, but comprehensive assessment, which is updated as this bill progresses through the legislative process.
  • For a good article on how the proposed reforms to SNAP will perpetuate the cycle of poverty click here.

 

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Cut Those Apron Strings

blue apron1As I promised in my last post, I want to take a closer look at the proposed restructuring of the delivery of SNAP benefits from the President’s proposed budget, released last month.  The budget proposes to hold back half of a SNAP recipient’s direct benefit amount, replacing it with a box of pre-selected non-perishable food items, equal in value to the amount of the held back benefits.  These boxes, named America’s Harvest Box, have been compared by Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, to Blue Apron*.  For those unfamiliar with Blue Apron, the online company allows customers to choose meals from a weekly menu.  The ingredients and recipes for the selected meal(s) are then shipped directly to the customers’ doorsteps.  I’m not sure the exact reason for the comparison.  Maybe the Administration was trying to describe the food box concept in a way they thought the general population might understand.  Or maybe they were trying to sell the idea by equating it with something hip and trendy.  Surely the poor will love it!  Whatever their reasoning, this proposal has been resoundingly panned by economists, policy wonks, hunger advocates, and almost every organization tasked with assisting those who are food insecure.

Before I discuss the proposed changes and why they are not a good idea, I want to explain how SNAP currently works and discuss some of the positives about the current delivery system.  Once a month benefits are loaded on to a SNAP participant’s Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which resembles a credit or debit card, and works just like a debit card.   SNAP participants are able to use the EBT card at participating stores to purchase qualifying food items.  That’s it!  That’s how easy it is.  The SNAP EBT card has been in use in all 50 states since 2004 and was introduced to reduce fraud associated with the use of paper food stamp coupons.  These EBT cards have been successful in helping to reduce SNAP fraud to roughly 1%, one of the lowest frauds rates of any Federal program.

The current method used to administer SNAP has numerous benefits, and not just for bluearpon2SNAP participants.  For those who participate in SNAP, the EBT card allows them the control to purchase the food that is appropriate for the make-up of their household.  For instance, if the household has a baby, baby food can be purchased, or if someone in the household has dietary restrictions or allergies, certain items can be avoided in favor of more appropriate ones.  Additionally, using the SNAP EBT card allows participants to shop for their food when and where it is most convenient for them.  For instance they can shop at night or on weekends to accommodate a work schedule or more frequently if they are only able to carry a few items on the bus.  Finally, the current manner in which SNAP functions does not just benefit SNAP participants.  The USDA reports that every $5 of SNAP benefit spent generates $9 in economic activity for the local economy.

From all angles the current SNAP program’s benefit delivery system looks like it functions quite well.  It is easy to administer, experiences very little fraud, and is flexible in meeting the needs of those it seeks to help.  So what would the restructuring do to improve this program?  Absolutely nothing.  As previously stated, the proposed restructure would withhold half of the benefit dollar amount for a SNAP recipient and replaced it with the America’s Harvest Box.  The remaining benefits would be loaded onto an EBT card for SNAP participants to use as they currently do.  The box of food would contain non-perishable foods, such as canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, pasta and cereals, and shelf stable milk.  Each SNAP household would get a food box valued at the amount of their withheld benefits.  The food items would be chosen by the government and will vary from month to month depending on what is available.

blueapron3If you are like me, at this point you are scratching your head and asking why the government would blow up an efficiently functioning program and replace it with one that will be less beneficial to those who use it, possibly more expensive to administer, and a logistical nightmare for all.  According to the USDA the intent of this change is to “improve the nutritional value of the benefits provided and reduce the potential EBT fraud.”  In response to the second half of that statement, what fraud and how is this going to help?  Direct benefits on an EBT card,  which are currently virtually fraud proof (hence a 1% rate of fraud), are being converted into a box of food, which could easily be sold or traded, creating conditions where fraud can more readily happen.

As for the first half of the statement, the America’s Harvest Boxes do very little to ensure better access to nutritional food for those receiving SNAP benefits.  The boxes provide no fresh produce, while taking away half of the SNAP recipient’s direct benefits, which could have been used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.  In addition to limiting a SNAP household’s access to fresh produce, the America’s Harvest Box has potential to hamper SNAP recipients’ ability to purchase food items appropriate to the household and may even give recipients food which can not be used by members of the household.  In all likelihood,  the contents of the boxes would be uniform for all households and households would not have any idea what exactly will be inside until the box is opened.  Consequently, a family with a baby would get the same food as the family with older children or no children.  The diabetic or person with heart disease would get the same food as the SNAP recipient with no health issues.  And what about those with food allergies, like peanut butter?  Some households will get food they can’t use, while others won’t get items they need.  The result in either case will be SNAP recipients who will have a reduced ability to purchase fresh produce and food appropriate to their household.

In addition to having the purchasing power of their direct SNAP benefits diminished, these SNAP participants face the likely burden of having to pick up their food boxes.  With Blue Apron, the box of ingredients is delivered to the purchasers’ doorsteps.  I doubt America’s Harvest Boxes will be delivered to SNAP recipients’ doorsteps as the cost would be too prohibitive.  Consequently, food box recipients will need to travel to a distribution location at specific times to receive their food.  One might think picking up this box of food is no big deal, but what if the pick up time is during their work hours?  Or they don’t have reliable transportation?  Or they have a car, but lack enough money to buy gas for this extra trip?  Or they are unable to carry a large box of food on public transportation?  The currently mode of putting direct benefits on an EBT card presentsblueapron4 none of these added burdens for SNAP participants.

SNAP recipients, however, are not the only ones to experience the negatives of this restructuring of SNAP.  States, tasked with the job of assembling and distributing these food boxes, will also face hardships.  The proposed budget says that states will have “substantial flexibility in designing the food box delivery system through existing infrastructure, partnerships, or commercial/retail delivery services.”  But what does that mean?  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities contends that neither the USDA nor the states currently have the operational capacity and infrastructure necessary to support the distribution of commodities to individual households.  If that is the case, new bureaucracy will need to be created with the possibility that the funds to create this delivery system will to come out of the already shrinking SNAP budget, further reducing the funding available to assist the food insecure.  Additionally, local economies will suffer when SNAP recipients’ ability to purchase their food locally drops by half.  Large retailers, like Walmart and Target, are already speaking out in opposition to this change.

Many of the critics of the America’s Harvest Box proposal agree that this restructuring of SNAP probably will not pass.  Even though this legislation may be going nowhere, I still feel that discussing it is important.  The details of the restructuring, at best, reveal a disconnect between what the Administration thinks will help SNAP participants and what they really need in terms of assistance.  More disturbing, however, some critics believe this proposal is just a smokescreen to cover for cuts and mandatory work requirements for SNAP participation.  There has been a movement by some legislators for the past several years to severely cut the budget for SNAP, and unable to pass legislation to make that cut all at once, they have been chipping away at the SNAP budget year after year.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is one of the few remaining programs of our social safety net.  Every year SNAP prevents millions of Americans from slipping through the net into a level poverty from which they can not recover.  If SNAP is allowed to be restructured or in any other way to have its budget cut, I think the depths of poverty will extend down to levels we have not seen in this country for many decades.  Those of us concerned with the plight of people in poverty must remain vigilant.

*Next time, before the anyone from the Administration makes a comparison, perhaps he should do some research.  Blue Apron has never turned a profit and has actually been losing customers.  It’s stock has lost two-thirds of the value of it’s initial public offering of $10, causing speculation about whether the company will even exist in 5 years.

 

 

A Budget Built on Myths

Over the past two weeks I have read analyses and responses to the President’s 2019 proposed budget from a variety of sources, including organizations which report the news, conduct policy review, advocate for the poor, and help provide food for those who are food insecure.  All of these organizations and news outlets have come to the same conclusion–this budget will be disastrous to poor Americans.  Since my blog focuses on food insecurity, I am going to limit my discussion of the proposed budget to changes which will affect aid to those who are food insecure; however, the budget’s proposed cuts to the federal housing assistance program, Medicaid, and other programs comprising our social safety net will undoubtedly further negatively impact these same households.  I will mostly focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is slated to have its budget cut by $213 billion over the next ten years, or 30 percent.   This budget cut to SNAP would be achieved by drastically restructuring benefit delivery, a change affecting a majority of participating SNAP households.  Additional proposed changes in benefits and eligibility requirements would make at least 4 million peopleelderly hands ineligible for any SNAP benefits.  These proposed cuts will affect SNAP participants across all groups, including the elderly, those with disabilities, low income working families, children and veterans.

If this budget is approved, the largest cut to SNAP would occur through a dramatic restructuring in the delivery of benefits.  In this restructuring $260 billion (over 10 years) will be shifted from benefits paid directly to households for the purchase of food, back to the government.  Here is how the restructuring will work.  Under the proposal, households which receive $90 or more in SNAP benefits each month (80% of all SNAP recipients) would see half of their benefit amount shift from direct EBT funds, which are then used by the recipient to purchase food, to a box of pre-selected, non-perishable food worth the same dollar amount including, shelf stable milk, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruits and vegetables.*  The cost for the purchase food, assembly, and distribution of these boxes, called America’s Harvest Box, is budgeted to cost $130 billion, or half of the money being shifted from direct benefits.  The remaining $130 billion of the held back funds would be eliminated from the program, comprising the majority of the USDA’s estimated ten year SNAP savings.  This change would affect almost 90% of SNAP participants, or approximately 34 million people in 16 million households in 2019.

The cuts to SNAP do not end with this restructuring though.  The President’s 2019 budget proposes an additional $85 billion in cuts to SNAP over a ten year period.  For example, the budget proposes raising the upper age limit for unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), who are limited to only 3 months of SNAP benefits, from the current age of 49 to age 62.  Another proposed change would be to cap SNAP benefits disabledat the level for a household of six, penalizing any households of more than six individuals.  This will greatly impact multi-generational households or households where two families have come together to pool their resources by sharing costs.  An additional proposed cut would be the elimination of the minimum benefit, ending benefits for roughly 2 million individuals, mostly low-income seniors and people with disabilities. These are just a few of the other areas the budget proposes to cut SNAP benefits.  SNAP, however, is not the only program assisting those who are food insecure targeted for cuts.

Like SNAP these other programs help all groups who are facing poverty and food insecurity.  For instance, the budget proposes the all but elimination of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which will impact seniors.  The CSFP distributes senior boxes, which provides meal boxes to low income seniors.  Additionally there are proposed cuts to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and school and summer lunch programs.  These cuts will greatly impact children and weaken programs which have been proven to not only lessen hunger, but infant eatingto improve the health and educational achievement of children.  The last cuts I want to mention are cuts to programs that assist with purchasing fresh produce at farmer’s markets, and nutritional education programs.  These cuts strike me as incredibly hypocritical as one of the main reasons for restructuring SNAP benefits to include the America’s Harvest Box was to ensure SNAP participants were purchasing healthy food with their benefits.  The America’s Harvest Box, however, contains no fresh produce and these cuts will reduce the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables individuals receiving assistance can purchase.

As I state above, the proposed cuts to these social safety net programs designed to assist the food insecure do not discriminate and will hurt all segments of the population receiving assistance.  This proposed budget reflects a clear misunderstanding about who the average SNAP participant actually is.*  I have come to the conclusion over the past few years of studying poverty issues and food insecurity, that many in this country, including a large number of politicians, believe that the average SNAP participant is someone who is lazy and doesn’t want to work.  They believe that person uses his or her benefits to buy junk food and sodas or steaks and other luxuries.  Furthermore, when they not making inappropriate food purchases, they are engaging in some sort of fraudulent activity with their SNAP benefits.  And all the while they are abusing the system, they are laughing at hard working Americans for providing their tax dollars to fund this program.  Ladies and gentlemen, this version of the average SNAP participant is a MYTH and before anyone starts to protest about some friend their brother knows, or a co-worker’s cousin or even their own deadbeat cousin, let me just say that I know there are those out there who abuse the system.  I have witnessed it myself.  But the number of farm workerparticipants I have witnessed who are truly struggling, working hard, and trying to do the right thing to get themselves and their families out of the situation they are in, vastly outweighs the handful of SNAP abusers I have encountered.

I grew up hearing that those in the United States who wanted to could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make a good life for themselves.  I was taught that in America if a person worked hard and played by the rules, he could rise up and attain the American Dream.  I have learned that this, too, is a MYTH.  Oh sure, the possibility does exist for an individual to start with very little, and with hard work and smart decisions, attain wealth.  I would just argue that there is more to that person’s story than just hard work and sacrifice, because I encounter individuals all the time who are working hard and sacrificing, but still live in poverty.  The truth is that it is against incredible odds that anyone is able to move out of poverty in the United States.  The social safety net in the Untied States contains gaping holes in its current state.  Maintaining the status quo will at best ensure that poverty numbers in the United States will remain at their current level.  If this budget were to pass, however, all bets are off.

* I will address this topic further in an upcoming blog post.

A Moral Disgrace

eraserMonday I sat down to write, but was unable to get started.  I had a topic–charitable organizations alone can not adequately address poverty and food insecurity.  I had done reading on the topic and had even written out some notes and a basic outline.  Still nothing came.  I am very familiar with the topic, having touched upon it several times already in my writing, and have definite ideas about the role charity should play in addressing poverty.  I thought maybe the strong opinions I had regarding the topic might be creating a barrier to writing.  Sometimes the posts I am the most emotionally attached to are the more difficult ones to write.  Consequently, I decided to put my chosen topic away and look for another one to write about, maybe something positive and uplifting  as I was feeling a bit overwhelmed at the enormity of the problem of food insecurity.  I began searching on the Internet, reading articles and postings on various websites, but nothing jumped out at me, certainly not anything positive.  And then, just before I my blogging day ended and I had to shift back into Mom mode, something caught my eye.  The President had released his proposed budget.

As I transitioned from my home office to the kitchen, I switched on the radio to listen to the evening news cycle.  The release of the proposed budget dominated the evening news, with NPR even incorporating the budget release into their banter during their winter fund drive break as a result of the budget’s proposal to zero out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Dinnertime neared and the radio got turned off.  It wasn’t until later that night that I was able to check back in to various news sources to get an update on what the budget contained.  I expected there to be information and even some criticism from various news outlets.  While I was not expecting good news to come out of this budget, I was not quite prepared for what greeted me.

There were articles and analyses about the content of the proposed budget, but there were also statements and press releases, from various organizations advocating for and assist with those experiencing poverty and food insecurity, who I follow on Facebook.  And these organizations, who make it their purpose to assist those in poverty, who understand intimately what the result of these proposed budget cuts will be, were outraged.  Among those responses, the harsh statement from Abby J. Leibman, President and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, calling the budget proposal a “moral disgrace,” really grabbed my attention.  At that moment I realized that the statements from the these organizations, condemning this budget,  were making the same point I had been planning to make in my aborted post on Monday.  Philanthropic organizations alone can not make a dent in the problem of poverty or food insecurity.  Nor should they be expected to take point on a problem as complex as poverty. These organizations, who are in the trenches trying to help people who are hungry, know that if you further slash these social safety net programs or re-work successful programs, like SNAP, real people will suffer and the problem will only get worse.

The anti-hunger field has been prepared for disappointment, but this proposal is beyond the pale. 

Abby J. Leibman President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

Over the past couple of days I have learned more about the President’s proposed budget, especially with regard to social safety net programs like SNAP.  I have saved numerous articles and website postings critiquing this budget and the changes it proposes to thesecompass rocks programs.  The despair I felt paralyzed by on Monday has been replaced by anger and indignation.  I am going to spend some time reading all the material I have saved.  Once I have done that I will share with you why this budget is the train wreck so many people who study poverty and/or work with the poor know it to be.  For now I will leave you with the main question on my mind.  Have we Americans lost our moral compass when it comes to understanding the reasons for poverty and the steps needed to be taken to successfully address poverty?  Looking at this budget, it sure feels like it.

Be the Change

be the changeI wanted to let my Facebook followers know that I have launched a From a Simmer to a Boil Facebook page.  It has actually been in existence for quite some time, but I have just recently updated it.  My intention with this page is to share, in addition to my blog posts, interesting, informative, thought provoking items about food insecurity and poverty, like the video I just posted about better understanding poverty in the United States.  I encourage you to check it out and “like” and “follow” the page.  You can find it by searching From a Simmer to a Boil on Facebook or by clicking here.  I also have a Twitter account @fromasimmertoaboil, which I hope to post to more frequently as well. Thank you for your interest in what I write and for caring about people who are experiencing poverty and food insecurity!

Trying to Restore Some Dignity

birthday-cakeThe other day, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a reposted blog entitled Poor People Deserve to Taste Something Other Than Shame.  In the blog, the author relays her reaction to and feelings about her mother bringing home a Boston cream pie one evening after work.  At the time, the author, her mother, and her brother were living in poverty and receiving food stamps.  As I read the author’s recounting of the event, I understood from the title what she was going to end up emphasizing, but was certainly surprised at her reaction, as a child, to that unexpected treat.  After some some reflection I wondered at my surprise.  Wasn’t her reaction to the treat coming from the same place as the apology we often get at the food pantry from clients, the apology to us from the client because he or she needs to come ask for help?  Both reactions result from a feeling of shame and both reactions break my heart.

I believe that most people consider themselves compassionate, willing to help those in need as much as they are able.  And luckily for organizations like food pantries, many people do give, not only food and other items, but also time and money, to help those in need.  I wonder, however, how many of those people give without question or judgement of the person needing help or the reason he or she is in that situation.  I imagine very few do.  Unconditional giving is difficult, especially if you have had to work hard and sacrifice to have what you do.  I will be the first to admit that I am not always free of judgement, even though it is important to me to remain open minded and learn the story behind the situation.  Remaining non-judgmental is even harder if you are told by others that most of those in poverty find themselves in that situation solely because of bad decisions or that they are lazy, and when you help them you are allowing them to takesteak advantage of you and/or the system.

When you hear this message enough times, spoken by people with authority, like politicians or the media, the message becomes internalized, whether you are person giving the assistance or the person in need of the assistance, and the repercussions of hearing this message are negative for both groups.  Those who are inclined to give may give less to charitable organizations assisting the poor or support politicians who advocate reducing assistance provided by the government, as a result of internalizing this message.  Additionally, when they do give, they may give with an attitude that the recipient should feel grateful for what is given, regardless of their taste for the item (think food), the condition of the item, or their preference/need for something else over the item given.  For those in poverty the repercussions of this message are disastrous.  Not only do they have to cope with the reality of shrinking assistance, whether that is governmental assistance like SNAP or local charitable assistance like food in a food pantry or non-food items like winter coats, but they must struggle with the knowledge that many in society view them as a pariah, which undoubtedly causes feelings of shame and failure.

I am very aware of society’s current attitudes toward those in poverty.  Each time I launch a drive for a special item, like coffee and tea or cookie and brownie mixes, I brace myself for pushback from readers.  I worry about comments like “These items are not necessities.” or “Coffee (tea, brownies or fill in the blank) are luxury items, indulgences.” followed by “Why should I use my hard earned money to pay for someone else to have a luxury?”.  Luckily for me, I have yet to receive any of these comments.  Any person questioning my choice of these items for a food drive would be correct.  The items I have chosen thus far are not staples, and indeed are indulgences, but that is exactly why I have chosen them.  At the food pantry, and I would imagine the same is true for most food pantries, we do not focus on the reason for the need, only that there is a need.  Because we receive state and federal food items to distribute, we do have regulations we need to follow as to who qualifies for assistance and how much we can distribute to each household, but once these requirements are met, all those in need are treated equally with dignity and compassion.

boston cream pieIn addition to being non-judgmental and compassionate, however, we try to offer kindness and restore a little bit of dignity to those who are struggling daily with the weight of poverty.  When we learn about a client facing a particularly difficult situation, we try to brighten that person’s day.  For the grandmother who is raising some of her grandchildren or the caretaker of an ailing family member, we try to slip in a brownie mix or some other special treat if we have them.  We keep on hand some birthday gift bags filled with all the fixings for a birthday party for households where a child is celebrating a birthday, but there is no money for a celebration.  For clients who are cancer patients we give scented lotions and soaps donated from a local store when they rotate their stock. I can tell the aim of offering these niceties is successful in lessening the burden of shame these people carry by the look on the recipient’s face and the thank yous, often said repeatedly, we receive when we let them know about the item. And this is why I have chosen the items I have for my food drives.  I wanted to pick things which would be a treat and would, if only for the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, allow someone in poverty to put down the weight of shame society has asked them to carry and and live like a person worthy of dignity.

A Human Face

happy 2018As one year comes to a close and another opens, full of possibilities and potential, it is only natural to reflect on what has transpired over the past year, and to look forward and plan for the upcoming year.  Many set resolutions for themselves based on goals they wish to attain, and others start new ventures.  I am no different than most.  This morning I made friends with my treadmill again and started logging my daily water intake, in hopes maintaining a better level of hydration.  I have not limited my reflections and resolutions to just my personal life, however.  As a result of stepping away, over the past year, from my bi-monthly schedule of locating, researching, and writing posts about interesting and informative topics concerning poverty and food insecurity, I have been able to think about what I hope to accomplish by writing the blog, to what degree I have been successful, and what, if any, changes need to be made.  Consequently, I have decided to introduce monthly narratives about people I encounter as I assist those who are experiencing food insecurity.

The decision to write these monthly narratives stems from a frustration I havecoffee frequently experienced when talking with others about poverty, especially with regard to public assistance.  The comments causing my frustration concern the questioning of the deservedness of those who receive any form of public assistance, whether that assistance is welfare (TANF), food stamps (SNAP) or food from a food pantry.  I’ve heard individuals classify those receiving assistance as lazy and living off the hard work of taxpayers or as illegal immigrants who have only come to the United States to get a handout.  Running through all of these comments is the theme that those in poverty are at fault for their situation, should feel shame, and any help they receive should carry a punitive component.  Over the past few years of writing this blog, I have presented statistics and facts about the average individual receiving assistance in an attempt to educate those who make such statements as to who the typical individual receiving public assistance is and the typical circumstances causing his or her need.  Unfortunately, I do not think I have made much headway in convincing those critical of public assistance that the majority of those receiving it are truly deserving.

teacupRefusing to give up, I have used my time away from writing to think about another strategy I can use to encourage these folks to stop and consider the possibility that the majority of individuals receiving public assistance are in dire straits, are working as hard as they can to get out of their situation, and do deserve the assistance they are receiving during their time of need.  As I have engaged others in a dialogue about poverty and the deservedness of those receiving public assistance, I have noticed that quite often the individual questioning the legitimacy of those in poverty to receive assistance is familiar with a person or family’s story which demonstrates for them genuine, legitimate need.  Those critical of public assistance give a pass to the individuals in these cases.  As a result of this observation, I have decided to write each month about a real person who is struggling with poverty and food insecurity, and whose story will hopefully give pause to someone who doubts the necessity of a strong social safety net in the United States. For these monthly narratives, I intend to draw on firsthand encounters* as often as I can in order to assure the veracity of the narrative, but will occasionally include an account I have read or heard about, so long as I can satisfactorily verify its accuracy.  I welcome your stories as well, either in the comments of my blog posts or privately, for me to include in a future narrative.  My hope is to put a human face on those who are struggling with poverty and food insecurity.hot-chocolate

Finally, the reason I have included pictures of warm beverages in this blog, other than it is cold and snowing, is to let readers know that I will once again be collecting warm beverages to give out to clients at the food pantry during the month of February.  This beverage drive was greatly appreciated by our clients last year, so much so, that we now routinely get asked if we have any coffee or tea available. It was also popular with readers, as I received numerous donations from many of you and have had readers already inquire this year about whether I was going to be collecting beverages again.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the warm beverage drive I held last year, I will provide a link to the blog post from last January so you know about the drive, and like last year, regular coffee, black tea and hot chocolate made with water are the best options.

*I will not use names or any other piece of information which might cause the subject of my narrative to be identified.

 

 

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