Developing strategies to end hunger
 

What are Block Grants? Can They Help End Poverty?

Block grants are big news these days, since they form the centerpiece of Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty proposal. The plan suggests taking all the money the federal government currently spends on 11 different programs for low-income people (including SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and several housing programs) and giving it directly to the states in the form of “Opportunity Grants.” 

Girl holding toy blocks
Photo by Miki Yoshihito

That’s all a block grant is: money given straight from the federal government to the states with a fair amount of leeway to use as they see fit.  In the Ryan plan, states would have to demonstrate that they actually used the money to help poor people, and they would have to follow several other guidelines, but they could each create their own anti-poverty programs.

Block grants have pros and cons. Some of the disadvantages cannot be avoided, while others can be mitigated by careful design and implementation of the grants. Here are three broad ideas about block grants in general and the proposed Opportunity Grants in particular:

They need enough funding. Imagine that you’ve been offered a job getting all the kids in your neighborhood to school. Your new boss says, “You get a choice in how you’re paid. Would you like $1,000 a month, or the cost of a bus pass for each kid?” Those are, respectively, a block grant and an entitlement program. You can see that in some situations, the flat amount might be great -- if transportation is cheap and there are only a few kids in the neighborhood, for example. But what if the bus company raises fares or dozens of new kids move into town? 

The same situations can arise with block grants for anti-poverty programs. When there’s a natural disaster, a recession, or inflation, there’s no additional money to respond. In policy terms, that means that block grants are not “countercyclical”: they don’t work to counter changes in economic cycles. Making block grants more responsive to dire circumstances and emergencies requires setting money aside in a contingency fund—and, of course, that money needs to come from somewhere. 

Also, let’s say you choose the flat rate, and you don’t get a raise for a decade or two. Worse yet, your boss shows up and says, “Next year, we’ve budgeted $850 a month instead of $1,000.”  That’s what has happened to many federal block grant programs — their budgets are cut and/or they fail to keep up with inflation.

What if $1,000 didn’t meet the costs of getting all the kids to school in the first place? This is the situation for some of the federal programs that would be folded into an Opportunity Grant: they are already insufficient to meet current needs. SNAP doesn’t last the whole month, TANF only serves a fraction of poor families, and there are long waitlists for other types of assistance (New York City alone has nearly a quarter-million residents on the waitlist for public housing). Keeping the same level of funding is better than making cuts, but it does not solve problems that are there at the outset.

States are not magicians. Giving states money and hoping they have better ideas than the federal government about how to use it may or may not be a good idea, depending on the state and the situation. But it is certain that block grants aren’t a panacea for poverty.  They don’t do anything specific to get community groups more involved. Paul Ryan’s plan refers to the wonderful work of Catholic Charities and other groups, but the reality is that such organizations are already receiving a significant amount of federal funding. States will need oversight to make sure they use their money well. And what happens when a state chooses to focus assistance on people it deems “deserving,” leaving others hungry and destitute?

As our recent experience with  Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act shows, allowing states to set up their own systems can create a confusing patchwork of programs, and some states might even choose to reject the money altogether. States already get a fair amount of leeway in how they administer programs; here, for example, are the state options for SNAP. By creating a menu of possibilities for states to choose from, the federal government is able to evaluate what works—and to expand the best practices nationwide.

One of these things is not like the other.  Some of the programs that Paul Ryan wants to fold into the Opportunity Grant are already block grants – for example, the Community Development Block Grant. Other programs focus on particular groups of people or provide very specific forms of assistance. Rep. Ryan says his goal is to allow states maximum flexibility, so that families who need child care but not rental assistance—or vice versa—can be better served.  But one thing absolutely everyone, rich or poor, needs to do is eat.  As Bread for the World has pointed out, block-granting SNAP would make it harder for the program to handle spikes in need. And people can wait longer for almost anything else than for food.

Another reason that including SNAP in an Opportunity Grant is a bad idea: it would enable states to cut off people’s nutrition assistance more easily. This includes children, who are 44.5% of all SNAP participants but have no role in setting or meeting their families’ goals. States would also be allowed to use block- grant funds for things other than nutrition assistance. While transportation passes and job training are wonderful, they can’t replace food. 

 Bread for the World has welcomed Paul Ryan’s proposal, calling it “an important contribution to a serious bipartisan dialogue about ending hunger and poverty.” But it’s far from perfect, especially in its Opportunity Grants provisions. Block grants aren’t a new idea, and they aren’t an inherently good or bad idea. Whether they are effective in reducing poverty depends on how they are funded and structured, on how states use them, and on whether they are accompanied by policies that create more jobs and ensure that those jobs pay a decent wage. Any legislation that comes from Rep. Ryan’s plan would need to be carefully crafted to take advantage of the benefits of block grants while avoiding their many problems.

Stacy Cloyd

Too Many SDGs?

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Vuk Jeremić, President of the sixty-seventh session of the General Assembly, opens the first session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Photo source: UN Multimedia.

Late last month, the U.N. General Assembly’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) submitted its proposal for a set of goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when their deadline, December 2015, passes.

The SDGs, to be presented for approval at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, are an effort to accelerate and intensify the gains in human development that the MDGs began. The MDGs galvanized remarkable global political commitment from rich and poor countries alike – and this is why they inspired significant progress against poverty and hunger.

The eight MDGs are concise and easy to remember – e.g., cut the rate of extreme poverty in half, reduce maternal mortality by three-fourths. They have proven to be easy to explain to the public and to adapt to the circumstances of individual countries.  At this writing, there are 17 proposed SDGs – which run the risk of losing the simplicity that made their predecessors so popular and effective.  It may sound simplistic, but it is also accurate:  in order to spur lasting improvements, the SDGs must be marketable.

One of the most significant critiques of the MDGs has been the non-inclusive way in which they were formulated. The voices of developing country leaders, civil society, and low-income people themselves were largely absent from the MDG discussion. This is something that the UN has worked very hard to remedy this time around. A list of 17 proposed SDGs is a good sign— many more people have contributed their thoughts, making it more likely that the SDGs will avoid the blind spots of the MDGs.

Stronger global partnerships based on mutual respect are also a major theme of the Africa Leaders Summit, taking place this week in Washington, DC. The emphasis on trade in this first-ever event reflects the evolving view of U.S.-Africa relations – and U.S. relations with all developing regions – as focused on shared goals that are nonetheless country-owned. Thus, each country will pursue goals such as ending hunger by 2030 according to its own national circumstances and priorities. If well-packaged and well-presented, the SDGs will undergird this partnership model.

Keeping the list of SDGs wieldy is essential, however. Early research in the psychology of memory found that generally, human beings do not retain lists of more than seven or eight meaningful concepts at once. The results of a more recent study by psychologists at the University of Missouri, Columbia indicated an even smaller list, placing the optimal number of distinct ideas that a young adult can store in short-term “working memory” at three to five. Conventional wisdom, from speeches and sermons to advertisements, affirms this finding.  Three-point speeches are the norm, and you will never see a commercial that tries to sell you on 17 concepts at once.

Like many other stakeholders, we at Bread for the World Institute have made our case for why the issues most important to us—a goal to end hunger and a nutrition target—should be represented in the SDGs. And there are many other critically important concerns. But there are only so many seats on the plane. What’s most important in the end is that the plane is light enough to take off. If people can’t grasp the goals easily, they will have a much harder time getting behind them.

The General Assembly should explore practical ways to preserve the breadth of the proposed SDGs while making them as accessible as possible. Grouping is one possibility:  the 17 goals could be sorted into four or five descriptive categories that are easier to name and summarize.

Communicating complex ideas without oversimplifying or alienating your audience is about striking a delicate balance. The potential impact of the SDGs hangs in that balance.       Derek Schwabe

A Perfect Opportunity to Make Progress Against Hunger

Photo for African Leaders Summit

 Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Heads of state and government have converged on Washington, DC,  for President Obama's historic summit with African leaders, taking place today, August 4, through Wednesday, August 6.

In addition to its focus on advancing trade and investment in Africa, the summit will "[highlight] the depth and breadth of the United States’ commitment to the African continent and... enable discussion of concrete ideas to deepen the partnership," according to the White House.

One sign that this deeper partnership is becoming a reality is the U.S. government's four-year-old global food security initiative, Feed the Future. As we've discussed frequently on Institute Notes, Feed the Future focuses on smallholder farmers as the key to the agriculture-led growth necessary to significantly reduce hunger and poverty. In just the past year, Feed the Future has reached nearly 7 million smallholder farmers, and Bread for the World Institute President David Beckmann calls the initiative "a down payment on global food and nutrition security." For more on the future of Feed the Future, listen to a Voice of America interview with Institute senior foreign assistance policy analyst Faustine Wabwire.

The African Union, for its part, committed to ending hunger by 2025 at its 2014 summit, held in late June in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. This year also marks 10 years since the adoption of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), where governments committed to making agriculture a higher priority. As discussed in the Institute's short paper, The Push-Up Decade: CAADP at 10,10 of the 54 African Union member states have reached the target set at the outset of allocating 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture.

Equipping Africa's next generation with the tools needed to build a more peaceful and prosperous future is a top priority for both African countries and the U.S. government.  The African Leaders Summit is paired with another first-of-its-kind effort, a U.S.-based training program and White House summit for 500 African leaders ages 25 to 35, part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) launched by the administration in 2010.

Simple numbers tell us why the focus must be on the next generation: as of 2012, the median age in sub-Saharan countries was 19.7 (by comparison, the U.S. median age is about 37). A startling 85 percent of all the people in sub-Saharan Africa are younger than 45.

The potential of such a young continent is enormous. But the data also point to an immense barrier to realizing that potential: hunger and malnutrition. In some countries, stunting -- an indication of chronic malnutrition early in life that affects a person's health and intellectual development for a lifetime -- affects more than 40 percent of all children.

Of the current 53 member countries of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, 34 are sub-Saharan African nations. SUN member countries have identified malnutrition, particularly during the 1,000 Days between a woman's pregnancy and her child's second birthday, as a critical problem in their societies. They are working together to bring proven nutrition interventions  -- many of them straightforward and inexpensive actions such as providing iron supplements to pregnant women -- to many more women, infants, and toddlers at risk. 

The African Leaders Summit, particularly today's discussion of "Resilience and Food Security in a Changing Climate," is a rare chance for leaders to use the growing partnership links between the United States and African countries to solidify global goals and concrete actions on hunger and nutrition. 

Michele Learner

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

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.

Faustine_Typepad

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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