Developing strategies to end hunger
 

A Shameful Anniversary: Five Years, No Minimum Wage Increase

The Minimum Wage Leaves Families in Poverty
This Thursday is the five-year anniversary of the last time Congress raised the federal minimum wage. Despite growing worker productivity and ever-rising living costs, the minimum wage has been immobile at $7.25 an hour since July 2009. If the minimum wage had kept up with U.S. productivity growth since 1950, it would be $18.67 today.

Minimum wage workers and their families know that $7.25 an hour means life is little more than a daily struggle just to survive. A full-time, year-round minimum wage worker earns only $15,080 annually. This is well below the poverty line for a family of four ($23,850 in 2014), and only a fraction of what an American family of four actually needs to support even a modest standard of living (see the graphic above). Monthly costs for family of 4 in Topeka, Kansas

It’s simply not possible for one or even two adults working full-time for minimum wage to provide for their families’ basic needs. The graphic to the right provides a breakdown of what the Economic Policy Institute has calculated a worker living in a part of the country with average living costs (Topeka, Kansas in this example) needs to sustain a secure living for a family of four. 

In 2012, 10 million full-time workers in our country were paid poverty-level wages -- 28 percent of all full-time workers. Low-wage workers and their families are, by and large, the face of American poverty. If these 10 million workers had earned enough to put them over the poverty line – that is, the $23,850 figure, not the $63,364 to meet basic needs – there would have been 58 percent fewer families living in poverty.

Every American who works 40 hours each week should earn enough to keep her or his family out of poverty. There have been times in U.S. history when that principle was upheld. This week’s anniversary is nothing to celebrate. Instead, it reminds us once again that the time to resume honoring our country’s values of fairness and the work ethic is long ov
erdue.

Some Americans are raising awareness for the five-year anniversary by taking the Live the Wage Challenge--attempting to live on a minimum wage income for just one week. After housing costs and taxes, that's just $77 per week. You can read stories and find instructions for how to take the challenge at livethewage.com

Read the 2014 Hunger Report to learn more about the key role of the minimum wage in ending hunger in America. Also, check out Todd Post’s reflection on minimum wage myths and realities. Derek Schwabe

Visiting the Heartland's Hunger-Fighters

woman holding Bread for the World t-shirt and smiling
Women's Fund of Omaha Executive Director Michelle Zych shows support for Bread

In late June I traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to do interviews and site visits for the 2015 Hunger Report.  The most direct reason for choosing Omaha was so that I could attend a session of Ready to Run, a nationwide bipartisan campaign training program for women. The training was fantastic—dozens of women from various parts of the state and of different political orientations, all of whom care deeply about our government and believe in political engagement as a way of getting things done. There were state legislators, school board members, political consultants, press secretaries, and women who weren’t necessarily planning to run for office soon but were becoming more educated about the political process.  They will be campaign managers, donors, voters, and recruiters of candidates—all critical members of the political process. 

But Ready to Run wasn’t the only great part of the trip. I met with women—and a couple of men!—who work at the Women’s Fund of Omaha (which organizes Nebraska’s Ready to Run program), Coalition for a Strong Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center, Hunger-Free Heartland, OneWorld Community Health Centers, and RedBasket.  All are amazing organizations navigating their own political engagement while encouraging others to take action in their communities. Whether I was talking to a kid enjoying lunch from a mobile summer feeding truck, a member of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature, or a doctor who treats low-income patients, they all had ideas and experiences related to hunger and poverty—and how the federal government, with the help and involvement of states and localities, nonprofit groups, and motivated individuals—can help create a world where everyone has enough good food to eat.

I’m looking forward to the 2015 Hunger Report so we can tell lots of stories like the ones I gathered in Omaha, from the United States and around the world, about women’s ideas, energy, and efforts to create change. Women are becoming more empowered in government and every other facet of life, and that makes a big difference in the struggle to end hunger and poverty.

Stacy Cloyd

For Families in Central America, Heartbreaking Decisions

Percent Change in Unaccompanied minors
Why are so many more unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border with Mexico? Most (about 75 percent) of the new wave of minors are not actually from Mexico, but have made the long journey through Mexico from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

If the surge of child migrants were caused by softer U.S. policies -- or rumors of softer U.S. policies -- we would expect many to be from Mexico. After all, Mexico, which shares its long border with the United States, is the home country of the majority of undocumented immigrants here. But as we see in the above graphic, Mexico is not the source of the increase. In fact, the number of unaccompanied Mexican children has changed little, and even declined since 2009.

The primary causes are, instead, deep poverty and extreme levels of violence in Central America. The striking disparities between the haves and have-nots in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador sustain high levels of hunger and malnutrition, particularly among young children, whose rates of stunting are soaring. At the same time, the three are the most violence-plagued nations in the hemisphere. Gangs often choose to recruit elementary school children; those who refuse to join are sometimes killed along with their entire families, and girls are frequently targeted for gang rape. This is why so many of those trying to cross the U.S. border are children and teenagers.

Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala Lead the World in Murder Rates
As long as poverty, inequality, and weak governance persist – and often worsen – many families in these three countries face a dilemma no parent should have to face: keep their children home even though they can’t protect them, or send them on long, dangerous journeys in hopes that they will reach a safer place.

To resolve the crisis of the unaccompanied child migrants, border control is not enough. The root causes are at home. Thousands of desperate families have determined that fleeing, even with the risk of never reaching their destination, is the best option their children have. The United States can do a great deal to help alleviate poverty and enable Central American governments to protect their citizens. Read more about specific policy recommendations from the Institute’s senior immigration policy analyst, Andrew Wainer. Derek Schwabe

African Leaders Commit to Ending Hunger by 2025

It was not so long ago— in 2007-2008 and 2010-2011—that spikes in the prices of staple foods accompanied by food price volatility caused a surge in hunger around the world, sending millions more people to bed hungry. Sudden spikes in the prices of essential commodities such as food affect all families, but especially those who are poor since poor people spend so much of their entire incomes—often 50 percent to 70 percent—on food. With so little discretionary money in the household budget, it is very difficult to adjust to rapid price increases. The global food crisis was a wake-up call for the global community, who had by that time dramatically cut back investments in agriculture. The crisis spurred new attention to the vital role of global agriculture—both now and in the future.

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Photo: Laura Pohl/ Bread for the World

Long before the global food crisis, however, member states of the African Union (AU) had already laid out a plan to reinvest in agriculture as a pathway to fight hunger and spur economic transformation on the continent. In 2003, the AU’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) launched the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). That year, African heads of state met in Maputo, Mozambique and agreed, in the Maputo Declaration, both to begin devoting 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture by 2008, and to set a goal of achieving an average annual growth rate of 6 percent in the agricultural sector by 2015. As detailed in Bread for the World Institute’s analysis The Push-Up Decade: CAADP at 10, 10 out of 54 AU member states have reached or exceeded the target of allocating 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, who have already exceeded the 10 percent investment target. At the same time, 10 countries have met or exceeded the CAADP target of 6 percent growth in agriculture: Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania. Another four have achieved growth of between 5 and 6 percent. 

The analysis shows that filling the investment gaps in agriculture is necessary to promote broad-based economic growth. Fifteen out of 19 CAADP countries that have failed to meet the 10 percent CAADP target leave a $4.4 billion total shortfall in funding. On the other hand, Niger and Ethiopia are two of the four countries that have met the target, and both are on track to halving extreme poverty by 2015.

It is thefeore appropriate that at the 2014 AU summit last week in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, African leaders recommitted to doubling their commitment to the Maputo pledge to boost regional food security. Elements of the renewed  focus include:

  • Set a goal of eradicating chronic hunger by 2025
  • Strengthen CAADP by including links to social protection  
  • Establish an Africa Solidarity Trust Fund to support four new sub-regional projects aimed at increasing food security and nutrition in 24 African countries.

These are all timely, encouraging steps.

This is a critical moment for Africa. There are positive economic trends: over the last decade, 10 of the world’s fastest-growing economies have been on the African continent. Yet despite these impressive growth rates, hunger and poverty still plague a large section of the population. The majority of poor people—approximately 75 percent—live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Targeted investments in agriculture are therefore critical and urgent. Investments must take a comprehensive approach that prioritizes smallholder farmers with emphasis on women and youth. Areas of focus should include access to credit; access to protective assets such as land; social protection programs such as cash transfers; and infrastructure—including irrigation, transportation, and energy.

As the world negotiates a new set of global development goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after their deadline in late 2015, Africa must step up to the plate and translate its commitments to support smallholder farmers into action. Development partners such as the United States should continue to support Africa’s efforts by helping CAADP strengthen its capacity and fill in resource gaps, particularly in the development of energy, access to markets, and infrastructure to prevent post-harvest losses. These investments should move beyond simply increasing production to emphasize access to highly nutritious foods. They should focus more on the food security of rural populations and provide employment opportunities for youth and women.

Globally, the importance of focusing on smallholder farmers as essential to achieving the first MDG cannot be over-emphasized. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2014 The International Year of Family Farming as a way of raising the profile of smallholder farmers. According to the Food and Agricuture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), family farming is important because:

  • Family and small-scale farming are inextricably linked to world food security.
  • Family farming preserves traditional food products, while contributing to a balanced diet and safeguarding the world’s agro-biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources.
  • Family farming represents an opportunity to boost local economies, especially when combined with specific policies aimed at the social protection and well-being of communities.

With just three weeks left before the historic 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to be held in Washington DC (August 4-6), I hope that agriculture, climate change and trade will rank high on the agenda. These are critical if Africa is to sustain its recent impressive economic growth path.

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Heat and Eat: Lighting a Fire Under State Economies

Would you spend a dollar if you knew you’d get almost $23 in return?  That’s the question facing states because of the February 2014 farm bill, which changed the rules of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) policy called Heat and Eat. 

older man pays for groceries using a keypad
Don't make him choose between these groceries and his heating bill (photo: USDA)

Here’s how Heat and Eat works: utility costs are one of the factors used to determine how much SNAP a household is entitled to. States have a choice between using their participating households’ actual utility costs, or applying standard utility allowances (SUAs). Most states have opted for SUAs, which vary depending on which utility bills a household pays. Households that receive state assistance to help pay their utility bills automatically get the highest SUA available.  Sixteen states and the District of Columbia gave at least $1 in utility assistance to every household participating in SNAP. This cut states’ administrative expenses, since they didn’t need to verify individual household utility bills, and increased the benefits some households received.   

Under the new farm bill, however, households only qualify for the highest SUA if they get at least $20 a year in state utility assistance. This meant that some households would face cuts to their SNAP benefits unless their states gave them additional utility assistance. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the benefits of 850,000 households would be reduced by an average of $90 a month. But they didn’t break these numbers down by state. We apportioned those 850,000 households according to state-level Congressional Research Service data on how many households got the highest SUA because of energy assistance. (Remember, some households can qualify for the highest SUA by submitting their utility bills). We then adjusted the results to reflect more current data (December 2013) than SNAP caseloads from the year the Congressional Research Service used.

State

Affected households (estimate)

California

22,288

Connecticut

22,381

Delaware

1,989

District of Columbia

5,475

Maine

11,331

Massachusetts

44,984

Michigan

118,541

Montana

2,642

New Hampshire

6,971

New Jersey

77,616

New York

192,679

Oregon

16,450

Pennsylvania

140,280

Rhode Island

13,273

Vermont

6,178

Washington

91,388

Wisconsin

75,534

 To maintain Heat and Eat under the 2014 farm bill, some states will have to pay more per household than others. It depends on whether they give $20 in utility assistance to all households (thus simplifying the application and recertification process) or if they only give $20 to households that cannot otherwise prove that they qualify for the highest level of SUA. Changes in SNAP caseloads and the administrative costs of changing state SNAP policies will also affect costs, of course.

Our calculations show that the weighted average cost per household would be $69.76 a year, based on the costs announced by state leaders and the number of households we estimate would continue to receive help with their utility bills. This comes out to a $59.3 million cost for states to increase support to each of the estimated 850,000 households affected. But the CBO estimates that such an investment would maintain $800 million in SNAP benefits. Thus, for every dollar a state spends, it will receive $13.49 in federal SNAP benefits for its low-income families. The real impact is even better: because every dollar of SNAP generates about $1.70 of economic activity (one reason is that these funds are used right away in the local area), every dollar a state spends brings a return of $22.93! 

It’s not surprising that with this rate of return, leaders of several states and the District of Columbia announced plans to provide additional utility assistance to prevent cuts in benefits. (Not all have been passed by state legislatures yet). Below, we’ve created a downloadable table of states and their Heat and Eat plans. 

Download Heat and Eat Table

Even though paying for additional utility assistance is a good investment for states, it would be better if all households—regardless of the status of Heat and Eat policies or whether states choose to offer the program—received enough SNAP benefits to afford a healthy diet. 

Stacy Cloyd

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