Call to Action

I would like to share with you an email I got this morning from the Chester County Food Bank, which urged me to contact my Congressman today to tell them to vote NO on H. R. 2, also known as the Farm Bill.  Some of you may feel that I am sounding like a broken record and are wishing I would find another topic to write about (don’t worry I will), but right now this is very important.  If this bill passes, it will deny food to children, veterans, women and people with disabilities.  The email suggests you:

Call your House Reps TODAY and tell them
“Vote NO on H.R. 2, the Farm Bill!”
1-888-398-8702

The email also provided the following language, which you are free to use:

I’m calling today to voice my concerns about the House Farm Bill as it relates to SNAP. As a constituent, my concern is that the proposed cuts will be burdensome and unnecessary to food insecure Pennsylvanians and hunger relief organizations like the Chester County Food Bank. I’m asking you to oppose H.R. 2 and come up with a bipartisan bill that protects and strengthens SNAP.

The email also included the following paragraph about SNAP with a link to more information about the proposals.

Why SNAP?

SNAP is the nation’s most effective nutrition assistance program. If we don’t act, millions of Americans will lose their food aid because of big cuts. The House Ag Committee has made proposals that are harmful, unworkable, untested and wasteful. To learn more about these proposals, visit the Food Research & Action Center website.

I will move on from this topic and had actually already planned to do so, when this email came this morning.  In the three plus years that I have been writing this blog, I have never experienced the outcry from hunger relief organizations against legislation that I have with this bill.  This bill will hurt vulnerable people who need help.

I just got off the phone with a staffer from my Congressman’s office.  He engaged in conversation and said I was not the first person who had called the office with criticism of the bill.  He seemed surprised by the calls.  Please call, perhaps we are getting through.

Please note:  Due to formatting I could not cut and paste the actual email, but the sections in color are the exact wording from the Chester County Food Bank.

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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.

 

A Win-Win-Win

farmers marketAfter I published my post last week about the Administration’s proposed changes to the delivery of SNAP benefits and the effects these changes will have, I read an article posted on the Talk Poverty website discussing how SNAP is helping to keep small farmers in business.  I was drawn to read this article, because it touched upon two points I made in my previous post–how easily most SNAP participants can and do access fresh produce with the current benefit delivery system and how that current delivery system helps businesses in the local economy.  This article discusses Double Up Food Bucks, a program funded through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program, that allows every SNAP dollar spent on produce at participating farmers’ markets and grocery stores to count as two dollars, up to $20 daily cap.  This program has currently been launched in 20+ states and this article focuses on the results of the Arizona program.

While I was not surprised that the article reported on the popularity of this Arizona program, I was surprised at how popular and successful the program is.  The author reports that SNAP spending at participating farmers’ markets rose between 67 and 290 percent since the program began in 2016.  At one farmers’ market SNAP spending increased from $9,000 in 2015 to over $43,000 by 2017 as a result of this program.  Additionally, over half of those dollars were spent on locally grown fruits and vegetables.  As Adrienne Udarbe, executive director of Pinnacle Prevention, the nonprofit that manages the program for Arizona, states, “Double Up is a win-win-win. farmers market2SNAP recipients have access to more fruits and vegetables, local farmers make more money, and more dollars stay in the local economy.”

Pennsylvania is not one of the 20+ states which has a Double Up Food Bucks program, however, some agencies within the state have created their own programs similar to the Double Up Food Bucks program, like Philly Food Bucks created by The Food Trust.   In Chester County, the Chester County Food Bank (CCFB) sponsors a program through it’s Fresh2You mobile produce truck.  Through this program, SNAP recipients who shop at the mobile market with their EBT card will stretch their SNAP dollars with Veggie Bucks.  For every SNAP dollar spent on fresh fruits and vegetables, shoppers will receive that same amount in Veggie Bucks to be used on future purchases, all season long.  The Fresh2You mobile produce truck makes a weekly stop in our town.  Consequently, the CCFB provides our food pantry with some Veggie Bucks to give to clients when they come to get their food for the month.  These clients can then take the Veggie Bucks to the Fresh2You truck when it stops in our town to help purchase fresh produce.

The Administration’s proposed budget, with its restructuring and spending cuts, creates much uncertainty about the Double Up Food Buck program’s future for the over 20 states participating in the program.  The concern over the fate of this program lies in the belief that the proposed America’s Harvest Box signals a shift away from providing funding for SNAP recipients to have autonomy to make their own food purchases, including the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Unfortunately, by making this shift, the farmers market3Administration will not only be providing less access to fresh produce, but will also be economically hurting local produce farmers who have benefited financially from participating in the Double Up Food Bucks program.

For me, this article provides further evidence of the shortsightedness of the proposed changes current legislators wish to make in SNAP and other programs assisting those in need.  From whatever angle I study SNAP and ancillary programs, like Double Up Food Bucks, I see a very successful programs which accomplish their missions with efficiency and very little fraud.  I fail to understand the reasoning behind the repeated attacks on these programs.  Either those who wish to shrink or alter SNAP have a lack of understanding of who uses the program and how they use it or a wish to impose a punitive element on those who need this assistance.  I want to be generous and believe the reason behind these cuts or restructuring proposals is due to a lack of understanding, but over the years I have seen more evidence that the desire to punish those needing assistance is more likely the reason.  What the current Administration fails to realize is that this proposed change or any change which cuts the budget of assistance programs for the food insecure, like SNAP or the FINI grant program, will punish far more than those who are poor and in need of assistance.  Members of local economies, like these small produce farmers, will also suffer as a result of these changes.

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.

One Horrific Accident from a Nightmare

This past year, in addition to paying close attention to governmental proposals affecting the social safety net, I have also followed proposals concerning legal and undocumented immigrants.  For now, most of the proposals concerning the social safety net have not been enacted.  Unfortunately, the same can not be said for proposals affecting the statue of libertyimmigrant population, and although these policies are targeted at undocumented immigrants, the ripples of fear they have caused are moving through the qualified immigrant population as well.

Before I retell the narrative I have chosen this month I want to restate the regulations regarding immigrants and their ability to qualify for social safety net programs.  Most of these regulations have been firmly in place since the late 1990s, but some date back to the inception of the program.  Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal governmental assistance, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), not now, not ever.   Any children of undocumented immigrants who have been born in the United States, and are therefore US citizens, are, however, eligible for this assistance.  Just the children are eligible and the amount of assistance the household receives is only commensurate to the number of eligible children.  For instance if you have a family of 5: two undocumented parents, two undocumented children, and one child born in the U.S., the household would only receive SNAP benefits for one, not five, members of the household.  With the 1996 passage of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), and subsequent legislation passed in 1998 and 2002, documented immigrants are eligible to receive benefits, but only after they have resided legally in the U.S. for 5 years.  There are some some exceptions to the 5 year waiting period for protected classes of documented immigrants, like refugees.  Furthermore, for all who receive assistance from TANF, whether documented immigrant or U.S. citizen, there is a lifetime limit of no more than 60 months of benefits, but that lifetime limit can vary from state to state with some states having a maximum 24 month lifetime limit on benefits.  In all states TANF recipients must get a job within 24 months of getting benefits to avoid reduction or termination of benefits.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program does not have a lifetime limit for benefits, except for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (AWBADS).

My point in explaining these rules is to convey that immigrants can not come to the United States and live off our government, especially those who come illegally, since they are ineligible to receive any assistance at all.  Even under the best of circumstances, immigrants must reside legally in the U.S. for 5 years to be eligible for any public assistance.  I do not intend to argue the pros and cons of immigrants coming to the United States, legally or otherwise, merely to discuss the reality for those who are currently here, living and working in our communities.  For undocumented immigrants, like the subjects of the following narrative, this is the reality they have been facing forstrawberry pickers years, maybe even decades.

The family whose story  I am going to tell consists of 2 undocumented immigrant parents and their children living in my greater community.  I did not meet this family personally, but a very trustworthy friend did and conveyed their circumstances to me.  While the parents are undocumented, all of the children were born in the United States, and are therefore American citizens.  The oldest child is 17, so that means this couple has been residing in the United States for at least 17 years, almost 2 decades, making ends meet without receiving public assistance, while contributing to our local economy.  They were able to do this because the father worked full-time and supplemented his take home pay by doing additional farm work.  The mother stayed home raising the children.  The kids are good students, and the 17 year old approached senior year with visions of attending college.

For almost 2 decades this arrangement worked for this family, until one day the father was killed in a horrific accident, witnessed by his children.  And just like that their life turned into a horrible nightmare.  Within a week of losing their husband and father, this family lost their housing.  The 17 year old, who had aspirations of attending college, now faced the potential of having to drop out of school and start working.  The mother did not know where to turn.  She feared going to any agency for help in securing the benefits for which her children were eligible due to their status as U.S. citizens.  She worried about drawing attention to her undocumented status, triggering her removal from her children who had just lost a parent, and her likely deportation.  When I decided I was going to write about this family, I went back to my friend to ask what had happened to them.  Sadly, I can not report any update.  My friend, unable to help them personally, referred them on to an agency better equipped to help.  I can only hope they were able to find some assistance.

wildfireUnfortunately, the heartbreaking story of this family is not an isolated event.  Last fall fires burned out of control in large areas of Sonoma and Napa counties in California, including business and residential areas in the city of Santa Rosa.  The countryside surrounding Santa Rosa is lovely wine country, but Santa Rosa itself is a large city, with tens of thousands of residents.  A wildfire in the vineyards on hills would harm the economy, but a wildfire within the city of Santa Rosa would cause devastation for thousands.  At the time of the fires, I didn’t stop to think who would suffer the most as a result of these fires, or that vastly different levels of suffering would even be experienced.  On reflection, I realize the immigrant population will experience a greater loss as a result of these fires.  Santa Rosa, like most California cities and towns, has a large immigrant population, both documented and undocumented.  These immigrants, who lost everything in these fires, can only receive governmental assistance if they meet the previously explained requirements.  Additionally, FEMA assistance, which is vital to help those experiencing a disaster put their lives back together, is only available for U. S. citizens, non-citizen nationals (Somoans), and qualified aliens (those living legally in the U.S. for at least 5 years) .  For the others, there will be no money for them to rebuild their lives after this disaster.

The story of this local immigrant family haunts me as does reading about the hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant victims of the wildfires in Santa Rosa who do not qualify for public assistance.  Prior to these horrific events, these households were surviving without assistance from the federal government.  Now, ineligible for help, what are they to do?  Immigrants, qualified and undocumented, live in almost every community in our country.  They mostly work in low paying, back breaking or otherwise unpleasant jobs that most American employers are unable fill using U.S. citizens.  They put money back into those local economies and pay taxes.  In return, during a time of need, they receive little to nothing.  What have we as a society gained from this?  And equally important, what have we lost?

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!

Opportunity For Whom and To Do What?

Several months ago, when I was reading about Paul Ryan’s poverty plan and the GOP’s 2017 proposed budget, I kept encountering references to block grants, or as they are called by some today, opportunity grants.  At the time, the GOP’s 2017 budget plan proposed shifting funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) to a block grant.  Many of the hunger fighting organizations, like the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) were very much against this proposal.  Wanting to better understand the implications of changing SNAP’s funding structure, I decided to do some reading on block grants, especially with regard to the SNAP program.  What I discovered made me understand why many organizations engaged in fighting poverty are deeply troubled by this proposal.

First, understanding what a block grant is and how it works is an important step.  Block grants arestack-of-money large sums of money allocated by the Federal government to a regional government, usual states, for a specific program or project.  Unlike other types of funding block grant funds come with few guidelines about how the funds are to be spent.  Block grants are often touted as a way to run government more efficiently and save tax payer dollars.  The belief being that these grants allow local governments, who know best how to use the grant money to help their citizens, have the flexibility to provide services or benefits in a more cost effective way.  In theory, block grants sound like they might be just the way to help solve our budget deficit; however, theory and practice are often two different things.

In practice block grants have a host of negatives, that for many programs, have proven to be detrimental if not disastrous.  When the Federal government changes a program’s funding formula to a block grant the money the Federal government allocates for that program is usually set at a fixed amount, and will not fluctuate from year to year.  Unless that fixed amount periodically is amended, block grants have the to potential to lose their value over time.  A prime example is Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC or welfare).  This program was flat funded through a block grant in 1996 with the enactment of welfare reform and yearly funding for TANF has remained at that same level for the down-arrow-w-moneypast 20 years, including during the Great Recession, reflecting a 28% loss in value.  Another limitation of block grants, also tied to fixed funding, is their inability to respond to economic downturns, when more people may need assistance.  Due to fixed funding, programs that are block granted are forced to try and help more people with the same amount of money, resulting in either a reduction of benefits or decline in the number of people able to be assisted.  Finally, block grants are usually administered with very few guidelines and very little accountability as to how the funds are spent, allowing the potential for funds to be diverted to other purposes and the certainty that assistance provided under block granted programs will vary greatly from state to state.

The possibility exists that block grants may be the panacea they are promised to be for some programs, but to fund the SNAP program through a block grant would be disastrous for a program that under its current funding and administration is a very successful program.  There are two main reasons this change in funding would be ill advised.  First, SNAP functions so successfully because it is able to respond to the current economic situation.  When the economy takes a down turn, like it did in 2008, funding for SNAP increased and it was able to provide assistance to the extra Americans who were in need.  Were the funding for SNAP to be a fixed block grant, millions of Americans who would have needed help would have been out of luck.  The second reason SNAP is so successful is that 90-95% of the funding goes to providing food aid.  Due to the uniform manner in which the program is administered at the federal level, little funding is needed for administrative costs.  If funding the SNAP program is shifted to a block grant, with little oversight or guidelines on how the funds are to be administered, there is the possibility that a larger percentage of the funds could be diverted away from providing food aid to covering other costs, thus reducing the effectiveness of the program.

The SNAP program has been called the cornerstone of our safety net and nutrition assistance programs.  In its current state the SNAP program is extremely successful, reaching 75% of all eligible individuals.  The program is able to expand when economic times are difficult and shrink, as it is now, as the economy recovers.  The Congressional capitolBudget Office projects SNAP caseloads will decrease from 45.8 million people in fiscal year 2015 to 33.1 million in 2026.  Currently the program is run with little administrative costs and almost no fraud (<3% and most of that is on the part of the retailers, not the consumers).  Not only does SNAP help the individuals that receive the benefit, but economist, Mark Zandi, states that a well funded SNAP program produces a positive ripple effect in the economy as SNAP benefits are put back into the economy, helping to pay the salary of the grocery store clerk, delivery truck driver and farmer.  Changing the funding structure of the SNAP program, however, would alter much of what make this program a success.  Why legislators would want to make such a change, that will in essence cripple the program, is difficult to understand.  Unless maybe that is actually the plan.  One hopes not.

 

 

 

The Poorest of the Poor

When I first started reading and learning about food insecurity and poverty I thought there was just one definition that encompassed all who lived at or below the poverty line.  As I read more and dug deeper into these topics I realized that several gradations of poverty down arrowexist.  The U.S. Census bureau’s poverty threshold in 2015 for a family of 3 (single mother and 2 children) is a salary of approximately $19,000 per year.  Households of that size earning less than $19,000 per year are considered to be living in poverty.  The next level of poverty is deep poverty which is defined as having a household cash income under half the poverty threshold.  Using the 2015 poverty threshold, that same family of three living in deep poverty would have an annual salary of only about 9,500 dollars.  The most dire level of poverty is aptly named extreme poverty and to fall into this category households exist on $2.00 or less in cash income per person per day.  For that same household of three living in extreme poverty, their annual salary would be a paltry 2,190 dollars.

If you are like me you had to read those last two sentences a couple of times to let those figures sink in.  How can it be that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world any of its citizens live at the same level of poverty as citizens in some of the world’s poorest developing countries?  In 2011, the most recent year for which I could find statistics, 1.65 million families were living in extreme poverty with at least another 20 million people living in deep poverty.  According to researchers, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, using the 2011 statistics, the number of US households living in extreme poverty increased 159% since 1996, the year welfare reform legislation was passed.  When these two long time poverty researchers first noticed the disturbing pattern of households where nobody was working and yet nobody was receiving welfare, they realized no entity was tracking the number of people who were the poorest of the poor.  To determine just how extreme this level of poverty was they turned to the World Bank marker used to study the poor in developing nations–living on a cash income of $2 or less per person per day.  So ironically, at a time when the extremely poor population of developing nations was decreasing, these researchers discovered the number of people living in extreme poverty in one of the wealthiest developed nations had increased.

Who are the drastically poor and where are they located?  According to a study by the Urban Institute, the typical individual in deep poverty is white (47%), young, U.S. born and living in a family.  Greater than 10% of children under the age of 6 live in families experiencing deep poverty.  Single mother households and individuals (single persons) are the households most at risk to suffer from deep poverty.  Geographically, the extreme and deeply poor can be found in all areas of the United States, but are located in larger clusters in the Southeast, which includes the Deep South and Appalachia, as well as in largerphilly love cities.  As it happens, Philadelphia, located about an hour from my home, has the highest rate of deep poverty of any of the 10 most populous cities in the United States.  Philadelphia’s deep poverty rate is 12.2%, or approximately 185,000 people, including 60,000 children, which is almost twice the U.S deep poverty rate.  While the deep poverty rate seem to be declining slightly in metropolitan areas, the non-metro, rural areas have not seen much if any decline.

Getting by on little to no money in the United States seems almost impossible, and according to Kathryn Edin in an interview on PBS, many in extreme poverty in this country are not making it.  As she notes, in developing countries where extreme poverty is present strong barter economies exist so that people living in poverty there do not always need much money to survive.  That is not the case here in the United States.  So how do they survive?  For most of these households cash assistance from the government, welfare, is not a option due to lifetime limits or work requirements.  Therefore, those in extreme or deep poverty then turn to In-kind transfers, like SNAP, housing subsidies when they can get them and financial support for healthcare through Medicaid and CHIP.  Many also turn to food banks and soup kitchens.  Edin also states that uniformly the people in extreme poverty that she interviewed in all geographic locations reported selling plasma.  Someone who is deemed healthy can sell plasma roughly 2 times a week and can make up to $30/ time.  She also mentions that because these people live without available cash, when they need to pay the utility bill or purchase school supplies or winter coats for their children they often sell their SNAP dollars for cash, knowing it is illegal and they could face punishment.  While this not uncommon practice gets them the cash they desperately need, it puts them further behind as they lose $0.50 on the dollar in the transaction.

In every place I have lived in the United States, rural, suburban and urban, I have seen evidence of poverty, so I am saddened by poverty statistics, but not surprised by them.  I was, however, quite surprised by the number of people living in deep and extreme poverty.  I find myself asking a question I have asked before.  How can this happen here in one of the wealthiest countries in the world?  One of the main reasons is that there are just not enough jobs at the bottom of the labor market for everyone who needs a job.  Most of the people in deep and extreme poverty want to work, and many do on a part time basis.  job magnifying glassUnfortunately, many can not find a job because the jobs are not there or they lack the necessary skills.  Others are unable to keep jobs they do find, because employers are unsympathetic to transportation problems, child care issues, illness and an inability to respond to erratic schedules that change at the last minute.  Additionally, many researchers and scholars believe the rise in extreme and deep poverty rates is a consequence of the 1996 welfare reforms, which instituted work requirements and lifetime benefit limits.  As Kathryn Edin suggest, when you pair the 1996 welfare reforms with the decline in job opportunities at the very bottom of the job market, the inevitable result will be a rise in deep and extreme poverty.

The motivation behind the 1996 welfare reform legislation, moving people from welfare to employment, has merit.  This reform is only successful, however, if those who move from welfare find stable, long term employment.  These individuals benefit from not only a steady paycheck, but from tax credits designed to assist the working poor.  Unfortunately this movement from welfare to work has not been the outcome for most of the people who no longer receive cash assistance from the government.  The result of welfare reform legislation for them has been very detrimental.  At best it keeps them stuck in a cycle of poverty, but more than likely it has allowed them to sink further into a deeper poverty.  Children born into families in deep poverty are less likely to succeed at all stages of life, and are therefore, less likely to move up the income ladder.  According to an article on the Brookings Institute website, 14% of children who are born into deep poverty will still be deeply poor when they are forty.  As we approach the 20th anniversary of the passage of the 1996 welfare reform legislation we must accept the reality that this reform has not been the success legislators hoped it would be.  Perhaps the time has come to consider reforming the reform legislation so that the social safety net is strengthened, especially for the poorest of the poor.  Once the safety net has been shored up, the United States must undertake the necessary work of identifying the causes of poverty and lessening their impact on society.