Developing strategies to end hunger
 

Stretching SNAP to Give Families More Nutrients

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP (known as food stamps until 2008), is the country’s first line of defense against hunger. Anyone who meets the eligibility requirements is able to participate. This legal “entitlement” – meaning that the program expands to serve all those eligible – explains why, when unemployment and poverty rates soared during the Great Recession, hunger rates did not rise dramatically.

So there’s no doubt that SNAP helps tens of millions of Americans afford groceries in tough economic times. Poverty does not automatically mean hunger in our country, because SNAP is a reliable safety net. In recent years, Bread for the World members have been spending significant time and energy defending SNAP from policy changes that increase hunger – largely successfully.  Recently on Institute Notes, we explained how states can grow their economies by using a SNAP policy option called Heat and Eat, even as the 2014 farm bill made it more expensive for them to do so.

But in the midst of our focus on playing defense, it is important to remember that improvements in SNAP would serve its participants better. The fact is, even the max baby being fed with a spoonimum monthly SNAP benefit is often not enough for a family to afford sufficient amounts of healthy food.

Here are two ways to help ensure that all SNAP participants can afford a healthy diet.

First, USDA could more accurately consider the burden of the high housing costs borne by many low-income people. The USDA formula allows households that would otherwise get less than the maximum benefit to get more SNAP benefits when they have “excess” housing and utility expenses. But these expenses are only considered “excess” when they are greater than 50 percent of a household’s net income, even though the federal government has long recognized that housing is only affordable when it costs less than 30 percent of income. It would be better to start SNAP’s excess shelter cost deduction when a household is paying more than 30 percent of its net income for housing, instead of the current 50 percent. In addition, all households could be allowed to deduct their full utility and excess housing expenses; there is currently a cap that applies to households without elderly or disabled members. 

For example, let’s consider a parent and child living in Washington, DC. This family is lucky: DC’s minimum wage just went up to $9.50 an hour, so a full-time minimum-wage job would pay about $1,634 a month. Let’s say they’re luckier still— they have no child care expenses and no disabilities, and they are able to find an apartment for $735 a month (that’s 45 percent of their gross income, but still far less than the Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in DC).  Such a family would qualify for $138 a month in SNAP benefits, well under the two-person maximum of $347 a month. But if SNAP rules changed to consider the full impact of the family’s high housing costs, this parent and child would receive more than $50 in additional SNAP benefits every month. 

A second idea: SNAP benefit levels could be based on the USDA Low-Cost Food Plan, instead of the more restrictive Thrifty Food Plan. The Thrifty Food Plan was designed for short-term emergency use, as the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) notes, and SNAP is generally the only place where the government uses it as a basis for people’s longer-term diets. Basing benefits on the Low-Cost Food Plan would give households more money, enabling SNAP benefits to be stretched to cover the full month and enabling people to purchase  healthier foods, which are often more expensive.

SNAP’s Heat and Eat provision is an important part of the nation’s nutrition safety net, but there is more that states and the federal government can do to make SNAP as effective as possible in allowing everyone to afford a healthy diet. Making these two policy changes would be a good start.

Stacy Cloyd

The 10-Year Outlook for International Food Security

Blog 072314The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) recently issued a report that projects the food security of 76 low- and middle-income countries for the years 2014-2024. The assessment was based on two main factors: capacity to produce food, and capacity to import.

The report is a follow-up to ERS’ first report that made 10-year food security projections, which covered 2013-2023 and was based on the same factors.

The ability to produce food domestically is, of course, especially important in the parts of Asia and Africa that rely most heavily on local agriculture. The ability to pay for food imports is a much more significant factor in Latin America, the Caribbean, and North Africa, where countries import a large proportion of the food they need. ERS weighed both factors in order to project the number of people in each country or region who will be food-insecure.

Over the short term, ERS believes that the overall situation in the 76 countries will improve. The share of the population that is food-insecure fell 1.6 percent during the year 2013 to 2014. This is expected to translate into a 9 percent drop in the overall numbers of hungry people, from 539 million in 2013 to 490 million in 2014 (for the 76 countries in the report).

However, over the decade 2014-2024, ERS projects that the number of people who are food-insecure will increase. This is because the share of the population that is food-insecure is expected to grow from 13.9 percent now to 14.6 percent in 2024. As might be expected, the main reason that ERS identified is that the food supply – what can be produced domestically plus what a country can afford to import – is expected to grow slowly, while demand for food is already strong and will grow more quickly.  

What does the report mean for global hunger? The ERS says that short-term improvements in improving food security in these countries, while positive, will not be sustained in the long-term due to population growth, weak country infrastructure and other factors. Improving production capacities of small-holder farmers, most often women, is essential.  Giving women farmers improved access to land, seed, fertilizer and markets in these countries is an important key to this, and will help build the foundation to a future where food insecurity and hunger are a thing of the past.

Scott Bleggi

 

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

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