Welfare Reality Check

narcissus-6368_640I am always disconcerted when I hear someone discussing or read a statement suggesting that people in poverty who are receiving government assistance are undeserving of their benefits or are choosing to live the easy life on welfare instead of working for a living.  Encountering these various statements one too many times is actually why I decided to start this journey to help the food insecure and advocate for the poor.  During the past couple of weeks I have been confronted more frequently than normal with this sentiment, so I feel it is important to respond to the notion that living comfortably on welfare is a lifestyle choice or even possible.  What many refer to as welfare, cash assistance from the government, dramatically changed in 1996 with the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).  Not only has welfare been reformed, but in recent years cuts in funding to other programs that make up the social safety net have resulted in reductions in either benefit amounts or the number of eligible people receiving benefits.  The changes brought about through reform, coupled with funding cuts in safety net programs, have greatly changed the landscape of what is collectively called welfare.

As mentioned above PRWORA, signed into law on August 22, 1996, is the piece of legislation that ended welfare as we knew it.  PRWORA replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had been in place since 1935, with Temporary Aide to Needy Families (TANF).  In addition to this change, PRWORA also imposed stricter conditions for tulips-1134103_640
the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), reduced aid to immigrants and introduced work requirements for aid recipients.  Temporary Aid to Needy Families is what most people think of when they say welfare, cash assistance given to indigent families.  With the passing of PRWORA, a lifetime limit of 60 months was imposed on families receiving federal aid money.  States were given wide discretion in how to distribute these funds, and consequently, a few states have even shorter lifetime limits on receiving federal aid.  One state has a lifetime cap of only 24 months.  Additionally,  PRWORA  requires recipients to get a job within 24 months of receiving assistance.  In order to continue receiving benefits, single parents are required to participate in a work activity at least 20 hours per week and for 2 parent households the requirement is 35-55 hours per week.  Failure to comply with any work requirement can result in reduction or termination of benefits.  With that said, no federal limit exists on how long TANF recipients can receive state funded assistance.  Furthermore, states are allowed to issue a limited number of exemptions, extensions or both.

Another program Americans think of when referring to welfare is the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP), formerly referred to as Food Stamps.  This program is natural-1225186_640 (1)the largest of the 15 nutrition programs administered by the federal government.  It is a mandatory or entitlement program which means the federal government is required to fund benefits for all eligible recipients.  Additionally, this program does not have a lifetime limit on receiving benefits for most recipients.  The only exception being able bodied adults without children (ABAWDs), who are permitted only 3 months of SNAP benefits in any 36 month period when they are not employed or participating in a work training program for at least 20 hours per week.  Just because only a few face lifetime limits for this program does not mean its benefits have not been limited.  SNAP has experienced several cuts in funding in recent years resulting in an average household benefit reduction of 5 percent.  Under current regulations, for many households living in poverty SNAP is the only governmental assistance program for which they qualify, or as explained below, are able to receive, even though they are eligible for other programs.

The remaining programs people think of when referring to welfare are housing and child care subsidies.  Housing subsidies from the federal government include, but are not limited to, public housing and Housing Choice vouchers, called Section 8 housing.  All of thesemuscari-562110_640 housing assistance programs have experienced funding reductions, resulting in long waiting lists with some people reporting being on a waiting list for 10 years before receiving any assistance.  Furthermore, it is estimated that only 1/4 of eligible recipients ever receive any subsidy.  Like housing subsidies, child care subsidy programs have experienced funding cuts resulting in lengthy waiting lists and a reduction in benefits.  Additionally, when a subsidy for child care is awards it is often a pittance, unable to begin to cover the actual cost of childcare.

I have discovered in discussing poverty with others, as well as just listening to and reading what people say about the poor, that many people either do not know about welfare reform and funding cuts in safety net programs, forgot they happened or have little idea the extent of the changes these actions have caused.   I don’t know that the ability to live much more than a hand to mouth existence on welfare ever existed, but regardless of whether it did at one time, it does not exist now.  America’s social safety net has been shredded or at least has big gaping holes in it.  Since the passage of PRWORA, getting welfare has gotten more hare-1215096_640difficult.  Less assistance is available due to budget cuts and more restrictions on getting assistance have been put into place, including lifetime limits for some types of assistance or recipient groups.  The reduction in welfare caseloads has been touted as proof of successful reform.  In spite of the dramatic reduction in welfare caseloads, however, welfare reform has done little to reduce poverty and may be responsible for the increase in the number of people in the United States experiencing extreme poverty.  Americans receiving welfare, in any of its forms, are not living on easy street, and if you asked them, they would almost certainly rather receive a paycheck from a stable, good paying job over receiving welfare.

This week’s blog pictures brought to you by Spring!



Why We Need a Living Wage

During my shift at the food pantry this week we packed food for a homeless man.  He was very young, not much more than a boy actually.  He came to us because he was desperate and hungry.  He had a job, although he hadn’t had it for long.  He didn’t have a car, so he walked over 3.5 miles each way to work, taking him over an hour.  We packed spamhim what we could, considering he didn’t have a refrigerator or any way to cook or warm his food.  What we gave him was a mish mash and not much of it was very healthy.  He said he would take anything we had to give, because he was really hungry.  We gave him SPAM, Vienna sausages, sardines, saltines, granola bars, tuna fish, peanut butter and a couple tiny jars of jelly.  We were also able to give him canned fruit, applesauce and beef stew and Chef Boyardee products (to be eaten cold).  All of these items had to have pop tops or foil tops because he doesn’t have a can opener.  Luckily we were able to give him some fresh grapefruit and apples.  We were also lucky that someone had donated a package of plastic forks, so we were able to give him something with which to eat.  He was fortunate to have a ride, which meant we were able to give him several bags of food.  If he had been walking we would have only been able to give him what he could carry.

Hopefully this young man’s life is beginning to turn around.  Hopefully he maintains his temp. job and it turns into a permanent position.  For him, this I hope, but here’s something I know.  I have packed food for other employees, permanent, full time employees who work for the same employer where this young man is currently temping.  So while I hope for a better future for this young man, I am not overly optimistic I will never see him at the food pantry again.  The plight of this you man and all the other people who are working full time jobs, yet still need SNAP, housing subsidies, Medicaid or food from a food pantry, clearly illustrates why the minimum wage needs to be raised to a living wage.  The current minimum wage of $7.25/hour barely keeps a single person without dependents, working 40 hours per week, above the poverty line.  Raising the minimum wage to the proposed $10.10/hour will only keep a 3 person household, say a single mom and 2 children, at the poverty line.  It is only when the minimum wage approaches $12-$15/hour that we see households begin to inch away from the poverty line.

factory worker

At the mention of a living wage, some will argue that it is a burden to small businesses and quite possibly for truly small businesses this may be true in many cases.  My family operated a small business for many years and employees were paid minimum wage.  It is quite possible that if my parents had had to pay their employees more per hour that all employees hours would have been cut or that they may have been forced to let someone go.  However, the minimum wage those employees took home was worth more than today’s minimum wage.  The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation.  When my parent’s began operating their business in 1978, the minimum wage was $2.65/hour.  When that salary is adjusted to today’s dollars it equals $9.14/hour.  Today’s minimum wage is $7.25/hour, which is almost $2.00/hour less than the 1978 minimum wage adjusted to today’s dollars.  The minimum wage in 1978 went farther, paid more bills, than the minimum wage of today.  Furthermore, many of the businesses paying employees today’s low minimum wage are large companies which boast sizeable yearly profits and are often run by CEOs who earn exorbitant salaries, suggesting these companies have the resources to increase their employees’ salaries.

Another common argument against raising the minimum wage to a living wage is that it will kill jobs.  Workers will be laid off and employers will be unable to hire employees, causing a stagnate job market.  Most economists used to believe that raising the minimum wage would have a negative effect on employment until the Card-Kruger study conducted in the early 1990s, which found a surprisingly positive effect.  Additionally, former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, points out that raising the minimum wage puts money directly into the pockets of people who are going to spend that money, mostly in the local economy.  That infusion of money into the economy creates a greater demand for goods and services, resulting in job creation.

mcdonalds archesSo, what happens when employers do not pay their employees a living wage?  Many of those employees are forced to turn to the government for assistance in the form of SNAP, Medicaid and housing and child care subsidies, forcing the U. S. taxpayer to make up the difference caused by their low wages.  According to an article by Clare O’Connor on Forbes.com, Walmart and McDonald’s cost U. S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, in public assistance because their workforce must turn to these social safety net programs in order to make ends meet.  At one point, McDonald’s even assisted it’s employees in signing up for public assistance programs, because they knew their low wages would not provide enough income for their workers to live on.  As a result of their employees receiving so much in public assistance benefits, Barry Ritholtz, in an article on the website Bloomberg View, labeled Walmart and McDonald’s as America’s largest and most undeserving welfare queens.

Many people in poverty are employed.  The homeless man I packed food for on Tuesday has a job.  Others are retail sales clerks, home health aides, janitorial staff and factory and warehouse workers.  They are performing often physically demanding jobs, doing tasks field workerthat make many of our lives easier, like picking our produce, caring for our children or elderly and ailing parents or cleaning our office buildings.  As Robert Reich so astutely stated when advocating for a living wage, “People who work full time are fulfilling their most basic social responsibility. As such, they should earn enough to live on.”  Raising the minimum wage to a living wage will not only restore dignity to America’s working poor, but it will stimulate the economy and assist in moving more Americans off of assistance and out of poverty.

Note:  A local paper reported this week that Walmart will be giving raises to all associates hired before January 1, 2016.  The average salary for full time associates after the raise will be $13.31.  The pay increase is part of a two year commitment, on the part of Walmart, toward higher pay, more effective training, clearer career paths and increased educational opportunities for workers.  This commitment is projected to cost Walmart $2.7 billion.

Falling Through the Net

A couple of blog posts back I mentioned a Ted Talk by Mia Birdsong, entitled The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True.  Her talk and its powerful message has stuck with me.  I keep turning it over in my head, particularly the section where she discusses the flawed beliefs we hold about those who are poor.  She states that some people tell the untrue story “that poor folks are lazy freeloaders who would cheat and lie to get out of an honest day’s work.”  This lie has been propagated for so long that large numbers of the population accept its validity, and because of the belief in this falsehood politicians have enacted legislation in the spirit of reducing the perceived rampant abuse of public assistance by lazy individuals who would rather take from hard working people than put in an honest day’s work.

One such piece of legislation enacted to put and end to welfare fraud and put so called “welfare queens” back to work, is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, passed by a Republican Congress and sign into law by then President Clinton.  One of the harshest components of this welfare reform law, strongly criticized by President Clinton in spite of signing the legislation, is the provision which limits the length of time unemployed childless adults, defined as adults aged 18-49 who have not been deemed physically or mentally unable to work or pregnant and do not reside in a household with a child, can receive SNAP benefits.  This regulation limits childless adults, also called able-bodied adults without children (ABAWDs), to only three months of SNAP benefits during any 36 month period when they are not employed or participating in a looking-for-a-job-68958_640work or training program for at least 20 hours per week.  Unfortunately, the legislation does not mandate that states have to provide work or job training programs for these childless adults and many states either do not provide this training or only provide a limited number of spots.  This means if they are unable to find a job after three months they can lose their SNAP benefits, no matter how hard they have been looking for a job or how much they may want to work.  During the Great Recession (2007-09) and the following recovery period, most states suspended the time limit as a result of soaring unemployment.   Most of those waivers have expired and in 2016 the time limit will once again be in effect in more that 40 states.  Consequently, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a projected 500,000 to 1 million childless adults will lose their SNAP benefits as states reinstate this three-month limit on benefits for unemployed childless adults.

A report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, entitled Who Are the Low-Income Childless Adults Facing the Loss of SNAP in 2016?, gives a detail description of the demographics of the ABAWDs.  According to the report, there is no single profile for this group of SNAP recipients.  The groups is roughly evenly divided between men and women, 55% and 45% respectively.  Almost half of them are young, below the age 29, but one third of them are over the age of 40.  More than half (57%) have a high school diploma or GED, but some (15%) have some college or a college degree.  These childless adults come from all ethnic groups and can be found living in urban, suburban and rural settings.  This group, although varied, does share some similarities.  Most ADAWDs who can work do so, with at least 25% working while receiving SNAP benefits and 75% working in the year before or the year after receiving SNAP benefits.  Another similarity is that they are extremely poor.  The average income for those who are at the most risk of losing their SNAP benefits because they work less than 20 hours per week is 17% of the poverty rate, or approximately $2,000/year.

While childless adults may be demographically diverse, they almost all face barriers to self-sufficiency and financial independence.  Many ABAWDs have unstable living situations.homeless-man-833017_640  Some are homeless or living temporarily with friends or family and move around frequently.  One third of them have mental or physical limitations, like PTSD, learning disabilities or physical injuries, which are not severe enough to qualify them for disability benefits, but may still limit their ability to work more than 20 hours per week.  Among those facing this particular barrier are veterans.  Although labeled as childless, that distinction just means they are not the legal custodians of any children they may have.  Nearly 25% of these childless adults are non-custodial parents and another 13% are caregivers for a parent, relative or friend.  Almost half of childless adults do not have access to reliable transportation or public transportation and 60% lack a valid driver’s license.  Finally, more than one third have felony convictions, and even though they have served their time, background checks are difficult to pass.  The current job market in the United States is on the rebound, but when you have one of the above mentioned barriers in your way finding a job becomes that much harder.  Some childless adults, however, probably face more than one barrier.

What does it say about Americans when, in spite of what the demographics otherwise prove, we still believe that people in poverty are lazy, freeloaders, and because of that belief we are willing work-222768_640to deny them food assistance, averaging $150-$170 per person, per month?  These childless adults, by and large, do not qualify for any other assistance programs from the government.  As research from the early 2000s, when this restriction was last enforced shows, many ABAWDs eventually found employment, but at very low wages.  They continued to have housing problems, trouble paying their utility bills and struggle to acquire adequate food.  In other words many remained extremely poor.  Our social safety net has gaping holes in it through which these individuals are falling.  In the end, while these measures lessen the number of people receiving public assistance, they only exacerbate the problem of poverty, because the true story is that most people in poverty are there because they are facing actual hardships and they need real assistance of some sort to lift themselves out of poverty.



Freedom from Hunger

“Hunger in America is solvable.  People in America are not hungry due to war or famine or drought.”

The above quote is from a report, released January 4th, entitled Freedom from Hunger:  An Achievable Goal for the United States of America, written by the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger.  This Commission is comprised of members from the fields of nutrition, medicine, hunger relief, public policy and poverty studies, who were appointed by Congressional leaders from both political parties.  The Commission was charged with providing recommendations for reducing hunger in the United States using existing programs and funding.  Consequently, their recommendations require a negligible amount of new resources.  The Commission chose to focus on 7 groups who typically experience higher levels of hunger:  seniors, single parent families with young children, people with disabilities, veterans and active duty military, American Indians, people affected by high incarceration rates and immigrants.  After traveling across the country, holding public forumhearings and visiting numerous programs in both the government and public sector, the Commission compiled 20 sensible recommendations to reduce hunger.

After  having read this report, I was encouraged by several things I read.  First, I like that this Commission is bipartisan.  In the polarized political climate of today to achieve anything requires buy-in from both political parties.  Additionally, addressing difficult problems, like hunger and many other problems facing America today,  requires many different points of view and ideas.  Similarly, I think it is important that the Commission members are from several different disciplines and approach hunger from a variety of perspectives.  The Commission highlighted several root causes of hunger in the United States including, labor market forces and job availability, family structure, education, exposure to violence, historical context and personal responsibility.  As a result of the numerous causes of hunger, the Commission states in the report that hunger can not be eliminated solely by food assistance alone.  The root causes of hunger must be understood and addressed before hunger in the United States can be eradicated.

I was similarly encouraged by the sensible recommendations the Commission puts forth in the report.  Of these 20 recommendations there were about a half dozen that I was particularly pleased to read.  Perhaps one of the most important recommendation I believe the Commission makes concerns the phase down of SNAP benefits as recipient income increases.  In an effort to incentivize work, the Commission suggests allowing States to offer households who have become ineligible for SNAP benefits due to gaining employment, an appropriate extension of those benefits to assist them in assuring they have a sufficient amount of income in place before loosing all assistance.  If this recommendation were to be put into effect, SNAP recipients would no longer automatically loose all of their benefits as soon as they earned more than the eligibility threshold, allowing them to accumulate sufficient funds to be able to adequately cover all necessary expenses and lessening their chances of slipping back into a situation where they need public assistance.

A cluster of four recommendations concern summer feeding programs and since I am currently working to establish a summer feeding program in my community I am particularly pleased at the inclusion of these recommendations.  Three of these recommendations concern increasing the access to summer feeding programs in ruralrural areas, which would benefit my rural community.  Most importantly, the Commission suggests lowering the area eligibility for reimbursement for summer meals from 50% of children eligible for free or reduced school meals to 40 percent.  This change would mean that more children, in areas where poverty is less concentrated, would qualify for free summer meals.  The other recommendation concerning summer feeding programs encouraging to me is the suggestion to issue EBT cards for summer meals in communities where barriers to congregate feeding sites, like neighborhood violence or transportation issues related to remote living conditions, can clearly be demonstrated.  In USDA pilot programs issuing EBT cards to children at risk for hunger in these communities has been proven to reduce hunger.

The list of recommendations calls for funding for the USDA to implement and evaluate several new pilot programs, assessing their effectiveness in reducing hunger.  If successful these pilot programs should be implemented nationwide.  Three of the four pilot programs were of particular interest to me because they suggest taking steps to move households out of poverty, instead of just keeping them from slipping further into it.  The first one involves changing the SNAP benefit calculation from the Thrifty Food Plan to the Low Cost Food Plan, resulting in a more generous benefit.  The second pilot program suggests raising the earning disregard from the current 20%, which may help reduce the danger of families losing benefits prior to being ready to transition to self sufficiency.  The third suggested pilot program, which serves as a hand up rather that merely a handout, involves increasing the maximum excess shelter deduction/allowance in SNAP.  Raising the shelter allowance to more realistically account for the actual cost of housing, particularly in markets with high housing costs, could result in a lack in hunger as more household funds are available for food.

Finally, the Commission concluded their list of recommendations with a call for collaboration across governmental departments and between the public and private sector.  The Commission calls for the creation of a White House Leadership Council to End Hunger.  Representation on this Council will include members from numerous governmental agencies, including but not limited to the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Veteran Services, as well as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  In addition to these governmental departments and agencies, the Council would include members from the corporate, non-profit, university and faith-based sectors.  Lastly, community leaders and those experiencing hunger will also have representation on the Council.  The White House Leadership Council to End Hunger will be charged to develop a coordinated plan to end hunger by collaboration across agencies and to integrate funding streams and eligibility and delivery systems.

In this election year, in a highly polarized political climate, I do not know how likely the enactment of any of these recommendations are.  I do take heart in the fact that the Commission is bipartisan and came to unanimous conclusions.  The recommendations they put forth are sensible and require negligible additional resources to implement.  Additionally, they call for action from both government and civic agencies, as no entity alone can solve the problem.  Lastly, the report acknowledges that the root causes of hunger are many and all of them need to be addressed before any action to eliminate hunger can be expected to succeed, but succeed we can.

 “Our country-with all its strength, genius, creativity, and spirit of community-has the ability to be free from hunger.”

Good and Cheap

good-and-cheapIn keeping with last week’s blog post about the SNAP Challenge, I want to write about a cookbook I bought earlier this summer.  It is called Good and Cheap:  Eat Well on $4/Day by Leanne Brown.  This cookbook grew out of a capstone project for Ms. Brown’s master’s degree in food studies at New York University.   She calls this cookbook a “book of ideas” and a “strategy guide”  rather than just a book of recipes.  Each recipe has only a few essential ingredients, but most include a list of additional ingredients that could be used to enhance the dish, if one’s budget allowed.  Additionally, each recipe includes a beautiful color photo of the dish and a note, providing preparation hints, information about an ingredient in the dish or other helpful information about the dish.  Some of the recipes also contain a paragraph set apart by a dotted line with further helpful cooking tips that would pertain to that recipe, making the cookbook very user friendly for the novice cook.

Recipes aren’t the only things you will find in this cookbook, however.  It begins with a history of the book and states the author’s philosophy regarding eating, both well and inexpensively (the key isproduce fruits and vegetables).  Brown then spends several pages discussing tips for eating well and shopping economically, including supermarket strategies and a list of items she feels are worth the expense.  There is a section on what to do with leftovers, so that they are more enticing to eat and a page showing a seasonal growing chart for fruits and vegetables, so that you can purchase produce in season when it tastes best and is the cheapest.  Toward the back of the book are sections on flavoring your food, cooking in bulk and other cooking techniques.

The recipes are easy to follow and each dish is nicely displayed.  I have only made one recipe out of the book, but it was quite tasty and I will make it again, as well as look for others to try.  I love that she offers so many ideas about altering the recipes that the cookbook becomes more of a springboard to countless other creations.  I think it is a valuable resource for the cook, especially the novice one, looking to eat well, yet frugally.  In addition to assisting those receiving SNAP benefits, it would be a great resource for a college student or someone living on a fixed income.  The last thing I really like about this cookbook is the pledge that for every copy bought, a copy will be donated to someone who needs it, but can not afford to purchase it.  Furthermore, Brown offers a free downloadable copy of the cookbook on her website for those who either can’t afford a copy or just want to try a recipe or two before purchasing.  I encourage you to go to her website and check out this cookbook.  The link is provided below.

Leanne Brown’s website

SNAP Challenge

Gwyneth's food
Gwyneth Paltrow’s SNAP Challenge purchases

I have thought about taking the SNAP Challenge several times over the past few years.  Participants of the SNAP Challenge pledge to live on roughly $4.00 per person per day, which is the amount of the average daily food stamp benefit.  Emergency food providers have taken the challenge.  Politicians have taken the challenge.  Celebrities have taken the challenge.  Although usually garnering positive coverage Gwyneth Paltrow received tons of negative press earlier this year over her food choices when she decided to take the SNAP Challenge.

When I became serious about understanding the issues around food insecurity, taking the SNAP Challenge seemed like one of the most obvious things for me to do if I really wanted to understand what it would be like to experience food insecurity.  Yet I never have.  I have my reasons.  The first being that I have a family, and while this is my mission and they support me, they would not be too happy to subsist on a SNAP Challenge diet, nor do I think it is fair to ask them to participate to that extent for my cause.  Additionally, do not I want to do double cooking duty by preparing a separate meal for me.  Neither my family’s dietary discomfort, nor my lack of time to prepare double meals is the main reason I have never taken the SNAP Challenge.  As a person who likes to cook a wide variety of food, I have a very well stocked kitchen pantry and I spice cabinethave not quite figured out how to take that pantry out of the SNAP Challenge equation.  I could decide to not use any items in my pantry, but that seems a bit unrealistic.  Most food insecure people have a minimum of kitchen staples to use.  I could purchase only ready-made, preprocessed foods, but that doesn’t fit my mission to help those who are food insecure eat as healthfully as they can while stretching what little food resources they have.  And so consequently, I have never taken the challenge.

This summer the perfect opportunity to take the challenge presented itself, and if I had only been thinking ahead I could have capitalized on the opportunity.  Every few summers my family vacations in a cabin in Maine.  The cabin belongs to another family and we rent it from them for the week.  While the cabin is stocked with food belonging to the other family, we bring whatever food we need for the week.  This would have been the perfect chance for me to take the SNAP Challenge, without having to worry that I was cheating by using some of the staples in my own kitchen.  We could have bought our food, staying within the parameters of the challenge, and relied on whatever spices or other small quantity ingredients were available at the cabin.  The only problem was that I didn’t think about trying this until half way through our vacation.

To be honest, it is probably for the best.  I’m pretty sure my family would have revolted at the thought of turning our vacation dining into a SNAP Challenge even though when we take this spaghetti and saucevacation we tend to eat simple, easy to prepare meals. (Except for the lobster dinner.  We were in Maine after all!)  This is in part because the cabin in which we stay does not have electricity, and while it did have running water, it was pumped from the lake and not potable.  The adequate, yet primitive nature of our cooking setup, dictates relatively simple meals.  Some of the meals we ate included spaghetti with jarred sauce, vegetarian burritos with beans and rice, sandwiches, leftovers and other ready made foods like soup.

Once the missed opportunity occurred to me, however, I did begin thinking about what we had purchased, how much it had cost and what we could have done without.  To feed my family of four for a week I would have only had roughly $112 to spend.  Our total shopping bill was well over twice as much as that.  When you factor out alcohol, lobsters, and items that can not be purchased by SNAP benefits, like toilet paper, our expenses would have been lower, but still considerably more than the SNAP Challenge allotment.  Since we were on vacation I bought fun items, like cookies, chips and soda.  Those items could have been sacrificed.  We also had to bring in all our drinking and cooking water, as the water from the lake was not potable.  That is an expense not usually factored into the average SNAP Challenge.  Even without all these items I still do not think our total would have been the roughly $112 we would have had as our benefit.

no snacks

In the abstract I knew SNAP benefits did not allow for much food to be purchased; they are not intended to totally supply a monthly allotment of food, even though they do for many.  What this mental exercise accomplished for me was to concretely demonstrate, not only how little food SNAP benefits provide, but how difficult eating well can be if relying on SNAP benefits and how repetitive one’s food choices would be.  I will probably never take the SNAP Challenge and I am okay with that.  While I understand the intent of the challenge, I find it a bit flawed.  Here is the challenge I have for you that I think will demonstrate the point the SNAP Challenge is attempting to make.  Next time you go shopping keep your grocery bill.  How much was it?  Now figure what your household SNAP benefit would be ($4 per person per day for the number of days your shopping trip would cover).  After you deduct all the non-food items, how far over that amount is your grocery bill?  Now, examine what’s left and decide what you would do without to come within your SNAP benefit range?

Sunny Side Up

egg faceI took a couple of weeks off.  The news of the robbery at one of the food pantries in which I volunteer, coupled with the realization that most of the kids in my school district, who receive free or reduced lunch, will potentially go without some meals over the summer due to a lack of summer feeding locations in our area, caused me to become very discouraged.  I felt overwhelmed by the size of the problem and my inability to make a noticeable difference.  Rather than spread my pessimism, I decided to take a break from writing over the past couple of weeks.  I am happy to say that the tide has turned on my negative attitude.

Even though I was not writing, I continued to volunteer.  Last week I volunteered at the food pantry that had been robbed for the first time since the robbery.  I was inspired by a couple of things.  First, in spite of everything, the pantry was still operating as normal and had been since the robbery.  Somehow they had managed to find a way to compensate for the equipment they lost and were still able to give out the items that needed refrigeration–milk, eggs, cheese and frozen meats.  Additionally, the staff and volunteers had not let this crime dampen their spirits or commitment to those in need in their community.  Our area has had a very hot, humid start to summer, and one of the items taken in the robbery was the air conditioner.  Without air conditioning, in a building without windows, sitting in an unshaded parking lot, on a day the temperature was expected to climb into the 90s, the doors were thrown open to those in need and clients were welcomed with smiles and hugs.  I was buoyed by their unshakable commitment to provide assistance to those in need in spite of the hardships their organization faced.

This past Tuesday I volunteered in the other food pantry and had different, but equally uplifting experience.  Perhaps you have read or heard on the news recently about various states wanting to ban junk food from the allowable items that SNAP beneficiaries can purchase.  The reasoning behind this proposed regulation is the belief that people receiving assistance choose to purchase less nutritious food over more nutritious options.  I read a great article  in Mother Jones magazine by Tom Philpott that sheds light on why SNAP beneficiaries often purchase less healthy items, and also makes a claim that their purchases are not very different from those receiving no assistance.  I now have first hand experience showing, that given a choice, people receiving assistance will happily take the more nutritious option.  The food pantry on Tuesday had received a huge shipment of  produce cauliflower broccolifrom the county food bank in it’s weekly delivery.  They had fresh cauliflower, broccoli, collard greens, lettuce, red and green cabbage and corn on the cob.  Additionally there were frozen blueberries, diced carrots and pureed tomatoes.  We had no trouble getting clients to take this produce.  Many eagerly took some of everything.  It felt like Christmas and I was Santa Claus!  Incidentally, the previous week the other food pantry put out some beets and lettuce from their garden, and they too were being readily taken by clients.

The problem of hunger in America is much greater than one person or organization can hope to solve, and it is very easy to allow that reality to weigh one down and bring despair.  I am grateful for the my experiences volunteering.  They lift my spirits and inspire me to continue doing what I can to help.  I have seen the difference that these food pantries and the people who run them make in the lives of the clients who use them.

happy sun


Fuzzy Logic

One of the reasons I felt so compelled to act to help the food insecure is to combat the troubling attitude in the United States that people are in poverty through some fault of their own.  Too often I hear, “What’s wrong with those people?”  I guess the thought is that people are poor because they are lazy or have some other flaw causing their situation.  Many Americans reason that if the poor only took responsibility for their lives or learned a good work ethic they could find work and their situation would change.  All too often this set of beliefs is propagated by the media or our politicians.

suburban poverty2My personal experience with those in poverty, however, is that most of them are at the point of needing assistance through no fault of their own.  Many of them have lost a job or had to take a lower paying job.  Several have been bankrupted by crippling medical bills.  Then there are those who can not work–the elderly, disabled and children.  The new face of poverty can be found in America’s suburbs where since 2000 the poverty rate has skyrocketed by 64 percent.

Believing that it is the poor’s fault that they are poor leads to further flawed fact vs myththinking and myths.  The other day a graphic showed up on my Facebook feed showing SNAP myths and realities.  The realities seemed correct to me, but I decided to fact check them,  since no sources were given.  I found credible sources for all of the stated realities. According to the USDA, SNAP fraud is about 1% of benefits and this is an all time low, down from 4% over the last 15 years.   My experience with people receiving SNAP benefits is that most who can work either are or are SNAP households workdesperately looking for work, and this graph substantiates my experiences.  The figure of 8-10 months that the average person receives SNAP benefits comes from USDA data.  Finally, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, states that every dollar spent on SNAP benefits creates $1.76 in economic activity.  He states that SNAP benefits are the fastest way to infuse cash into the economy because those benefits will get spent immediately and that spending will ripple into other sectors of the economy like paying clerks’ salaries.

The other night my family was watching the movie, Witness, from the early eighties, and depicted in this movie is an Amish barn raising.  One of my sons turned to me and said, “See what can be accomplished when people work together.”   He then asked, “Why don’t we (as a society) do that?”  I didn’t have an answer for him.  With regard to poverty, I think it might be easier to blame to the poor for their situation.  To accept that they are in their situation due to circumstances beyond their control means that our system does not work.  Since our system theoretically comes from the people in the form of voting, that puts some responsibility on us.  We allowed the system to get broken and we are not doing all we can to fix it.  It also means that maybe people in poverty aren’t too different than those of us who are not, suggesting we, too, could wind up in the same situation.  That is a pretty scary thought for most people, so it is easier to believe that people in poverty are there because of something they did wrong.

Last summer I was listening to a Radio Times program about hunger in the suburbs.  One of the guests being interviewed suggested that instead of looking at those in poverty and saying, “What’s wrong with those people?” we change our inner dialogue to, “What happened to them?  What is their story?”  I like that shift.  Most people in poverty have a reason they find themselves in that situation.  They are not in poverty because they are bad or lazy.  If as a nation we can listen to the stories of the poor, we might come to understand their struggle and how we can help them, help themselves.

Who’s in the Pantry?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have seen young and old, men and women and several different ethnic groups using the two food banks where I volunteer.  I now want to try and flesh out how many people are using food pantries and some of the reasons they find themselves there. I will mostly be using statistics from Pennsylvania and/or the county in which I live.

According to statistics from the USDA, 49.1 million Americans, or 14.3%, live in a food insecure household.  These residents do not consistently have access to the necessary food needed to lead an active, healthy life.  Pennsylvania’s food insecurity rate falls below the national average.  State of Hunger: Pennsylvania 2013, a document prepared by the Coalition Against Hunger, states that 1.6 million Pennsylvania residents, or 1 in 8, are food insecure.  In my county the food insecurity rate is 10% in general and 14% for children.  While not everyone who is food insecure uses a food pantry or soup kitchen, the State of Hunger:  Pennsylvania 2013 report states that 105,044 county residents (503,897 total county population) participated in the State Food Purchase Program which provides food to charities, like food pantries, who help feed low income residents.

That’s a lot of people.  Each person who uses a food pantry has his or her own personal story of how they became food insecure.  Most clients of a food pantry come because they have little choice.  For many, they only go to the food pantry when their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have run out.  According to the USDA, the average monthly household SNAP benefit for Pennsylvania residents in 2014 was $241.05.  This benefit amount has declined every year in Pennsylvania since 2011 and it is projected to decline even more in 2015.  When those meager dollars run out, many turn to the local food pantry to help close the gap.  While volunteering, I have noticed it is busier at the end of the month than it is at the beginning when SNAP benefits are distributed.

With the cuts in SNAP benefits, less and less people qualify for the program.  In my county, 25,614 residents participated in SNAP in April 2014 or 5% of the county population.  The county’s food insecurity rate is 10%, meaning that approximately half of the county’s food insecure are not receiving benefits.  Currently to qualify for SNAP benefits your gross monthly income needs to be at or below 130% of poverty.  It is accepted, however, that families need an income at or above 200% of poverty just to make ends meet.  As you can see, there is a huge gap between the income that qualifies someone for SNAP benefits and what that person really needs to survive.  People falling into that gap are certainly coming to the food pantry.

If all these numbers and words don’t help you put a face on who is using food banks, I encourage you to watch a powerful documentary called A Place at the Table.  A companion book by the same name was also published.  This movie focuses on the experiences of three Americans struggling with food insecurity.  You can stream it live from Amazon Prime or Netflix.

Two things stuck with me from this movie.  The first is the following quote from Jeff Bridges.

35 million people in the U.S. are hungry or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and 13 million of them are children. If another country were doing this to our children, we’d be at war.

The second item that has stayed with me is the fact that we almost ended hunger in America in the recent past.  In 1969 President Nixon declared war on hunger and called for governmental action to end hunger in America.  In response funding was increased for existing programs and new programs, like the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), were created.  Within a decade hunger in the United States was almost eradicated.

We have tackled this problem before and almost succeeded.  I am saddened that we have allowed so much ground to be lost over the last few decades, but I also have hope that Americans can once again rise to the challenge and eliminate hunger in the United States.  I choose to focus on that hope.