Developing strategies to end hunger
 

135 posts categorized "U.S. Hunger"

Countdown to 2015: A New Dawn for Global Development

For the last 15 years, the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have formed the bedrock of global development efforts -- goals on hunger, gender equality, and child and maternal mortality, among others. Bread for the World's recent analysis of the value of the MDGs refers to the goals as "an uprecedented global effort to achieve development goals that are identified collectively, achievable, and measurable."

Now, the MDG clock is ticking. When the goals were adopted in 2000, a 2015 deadline was set. They are to be replaced by a new set of goals-- Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) -- starting in September 2015. Unlike with the MDGs, the process of determining what might follow them, a "post-2015" development agenda, has featured an active international debate. The U.N. High Level Panel on Post-2015 (HLP) -- the official process through which the post-MDG global development agenda is being shaped -- met four times for consultations that aired the views reported by a wide range of other groups.These meetings were held in New York in September 2012; London in November 2012; Monrovia, Liberia, in January 2013; and Bali, Indonesia, in March 2013. In May 2013, panel members presented a report outlining their vision and priorities for post-2015 development to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while in July, Ki-moon outlined his response to the HLP in his own report.

The process of negotiating the SDGs continued in 2014. In September, a special event on the MDGs and the post-2015 agenda was held during the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The theme was "Delivering On and Implementing a Transformative Post-2015 Development Agenda."

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Source: UN/DPI

Earlier this month, on December 4, the Secretary General released an advance version of his synthesis report on the post-2015 development agenda, The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet. The synthesis report aims to support U.N. member states’ post-2015 negotiations based on the world's experiences with the MDGs. The report proposes a set of six essential elements as well as a means of implementing the goals. The six elements are:

Dignity -- eradicating poverty as the agenda's overarching objective, and addressing challenges related to inequality and the rights of women, youth, and minorities;

People --  addressing education; health; violence against women and girls; and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH);

Prosperity-- calling for inclusive growth that ensures all people have employment, social protection, and access to financial services;

Planet-- equitably addressing climate change; halting biodiversity loss and addressing desertification and unsustainable land use; protecting forests, mountains, oceans, and wildlife; and reducing disaster risks;

Justice-- issues including governance, reconciliation, peacebuilding, and state-building; and 

Partnership-- elements of transformative partnerships that place people, planet, and mutual accountability at the center.

According to the Secretary General's report, implementation of the post-2015 agenda should focus on:

  • Committing to a universal approach with solutions that address all countries and groups;
  • Integrating sustainability in all activities;
  • Addressing inequalities in all areas;
  • Ensuring that all actions advance and respect human rights;
  • Addressing climate change drivers and consequences;
  • Basing analysis in credible data and evidence;
  • Expanding a global partnership for means of implementation; and
  • Anchoring the new compact in a renewed commitment to international solidarity.

Today — unlike in 2000 when the MDG era began — 72 percent of the world’s poor people live in middle-income countries. Others live in developed countries -- in the United States, for example, 15 percent of the population was living in poverty during the Great Recession, and nearly a quarter of all children lived in households that had trouble putting food on the table. Both of these factors mean that the next set of goals must apply to all countries if the SDGs are to end extreme poverty by their deadline of 2030. The post-2015 development agenda provides an opportunity to promote equity and equitable growth in a way that is truly universal.

Incarceration Is a Hunger Issue

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Andrea James discusses the rise in incarceration of women at the 2015 Hunger Report launch. Photo: Joe Molieri/Bread for the World.

About 1 in every 35 residents of the United States is either incarcerated, on parole, or on probation. The U.S. rate of incarceration is more than five times the average of other developed nations in the OECD -- and more than five times the global average as well. Incarceration rates in this country began to rise several decades ago, more than tripling between 1980 and 2000. This is the first of three posts about incarceration as a hunger issue.

Much of the rising rate of incarceration stems from harsher prosecution and long mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for more than half of all federal prison inmates, a nonviolent drug-related offense is their most serious crime.

Aggressive prosecution of nonviolent crimes such as possession of a small quantity of marijuana contributes directly to hunger and poverty in our country. This is because incarceration removes people from their families, jobs, and communities — often spelling poverty for both inmates and their families, particularly their children.

The damage is worse in low-income neighborhoods and areas where more people of color live, since these communities are already at higher risk. Yet at every stage of law enforcement and the criminal justice system -- from where police patrol and who they arrest, to who is convicted and the length of their sentence – people of color and people from poorer neighborhoods are treated more harshly. Further, lower-income people who are arrested may be hard-pressed to pay for legal counsel or to enroll in treatment programs that are sometimes allowed as an alternative to prison.

It may surprise many people that decisions about where to concentrate law enforcement efforts are often not based on where the highest crime rates are. For example, richer teenagers are actually more likely to use and sell drugs, but drug enforcement focuses on low-income communities.

Deterrence is often cited as an important reason for incarceration. A major weakness of this strategy is that people in prison have startlingly high rates of substance addictions and/or psychiatric disorders. Prisons provide limited health care or substance abuse treatment. People who are released with active addictions or mental illnesses are far less likely to be deterred from re-offending.

Incarceration is very tough on families. Children are separated from their parents and raised by relatives or the state. In 2009, more than 14,000 children entered foster care because of parental incarceration. At the very least, families often must travel long distances and pay high phone bills to stay in contact with incarcerated relatives. 

Women are a minority of prison inmates in the United States, but their rate of incarceration is rising faster than that of men. Bread for the World Institute’s 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger, takes a closer look at the impact of the rising number of female inmates on children and communities. Andrea James, head of Families for Justice as Healing, spoke at the Hunger Report launch last week of her organization’s efforts to bring attention to these issues.

When people are released and return to their communities, they face a host of difficulties in getting a job and supporting their families. We will look at these as this blog series continues.
Stacy Cloyd

Engaging Discussion Launches the New Hunger Report on Gender

  Photo for Hunger Report 2015

There was a lot of energy in the room -- particularly for a Monday morning -- as Bread for the World Institute released our 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish...We Can End Hunger, yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Our understanding of several issues raised in the report, some older and some newer, was enhanced by the experiences and perspectives of our speakers: 

        Fouzia Dahir, executive director of the Northern Organization for Social Empowerment in Kenya, which works to help women from pastoralist backgrounds transition to agriculture and bring an end to gender discrimination;

        Victoria Stanley, senior rural development and land specialist at the World Bank, whose focus is on efforts to make development programs more fair and effective by ensuring that they have been seen through a "gender lens" (here's an example of the Bank's development work in rural Bangladesh);

 

        Gary Barker, international director of Promundo-US, which engages men and boys in several parts of the developing world in the effort to end gender discrimination, particularly violence against women;

        Andrea James, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, which raises awareness of the toll that rising female incarceration rates in the United States takes on children and communities, and advocates for alternatives based on community wellness.

        Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute, just returned from ICN2, the second International Conference on Nutrition.

Many of the current barriers to women's empowerment have already been the subject of decades of struggle. For example, although the U.S. Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1963, women in 2014 continue to be paid less than men for the same work. The wage gap is a major cause of poverty: in fact, if it were closed, poverty would be cut in half among single mothers and their families.

Gender-based violence is another "old" problem that remains at epidemic levels. In many countries, a woman cannot  leave the house on errands, earn a living by working on her farm or traveling to a job in a nearby city, or sometimes even sleep at night without fear of violence. A fairly new and promising approach to the problem -- taken by male and female advocates alike -- is to engage with men, helping them to see how greater respect for women can help not only their wives and daughters, but themselves and their families as a whole. Adolescent boys and young men are often open to these messages.

Other barriers have become visible more recently, sometimes as a side effect of progress in other areas and the swift pace of change in women's roles in many societies. As Fouzia Dahir explained, in some Kenyan cultures, girls simply didn't go to school, let alone secondary school. When this changed fairly recently, bullying and lack of proper sanitation facilities emerged as obstacles that still stand between many girls and their hopes of an education. 

A significant amount of the energy at the launch was among the audience -- more than 100 professionals committed to gender equality, access to nutritious food for all,  and respect for human rights. Moderator Sandra Joireman, chair of Bread for the World's board of directors, and Bread President David Beckmann emphasized the opportunities now before us to move toward the goal of ending hunger by 2030. If we are to end hunger -- and secure women's rights as human beings -- global communities must work in collaborative ways to ensure that gender is no longer a barrier to developing and contributing to one's full potential, whether as a worker, a parent, a citizen, or any of a myriad of other roles.

Learn more about this year's Hunger Report and see interactive features at the 2015 Hunger Report website.

 Michele Learner

The “Third Way” of Women’s Empowerment

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Policy discussions of U.S. development assistance that promote women’s empowerment tend to head in two directions: improving women’s ability to participate in the economy and increasing girls’ enrollment in school.

There’s no question that policymakers should indeed be talking about these dimensions of empowerment. But I wish they’d also talk about what I’ll describe as a “third way”: increasing the share of women leaders in government. Here we scarcely hear a word.

The eight Millennium Development Goals include a goal to promote gender equality and empower women. One of the targets is to increase the percentage of women in national parliaments to 33 percent. Globally, women currently hold about 25 percent of seats in national parliaments. Given that women are half the population, I think it’s fair to say that they are still grossly underrepresented in government leadership. In addition to the obvious injustice here, there are implications for efforts to end hunger and poverty. Experience worldwide shows that when women gain a larger share of political power, governments enact more policies that reduce gender inequalities and promote women’s empowerment.

Earlier this year I was in Rwanda, the only country in the world where women hold a majority of the seats in the national parliament. Sixty-three percent of Rwandan parliamentarians are women. One way countries have increased the share of women in parliament is by reserving a fixed percentage of seats for women. These countries include Rwanda, which reserves 30 percent of seats for women. But in the last three election cycles, women’s share of parliamentary seats has increased from 49 percent to 56 percent to 63 percent. Clearly, it’s more than the reservation policy that has brought a majority female parliament to Rwanda.

I went to Rwanda because I wanted to see the effects on policy development of having a majority of women in parliament, and I guess I wanted also to test my own assumptions about women’s leadership. I tend to think that the fastest way to reduce gender inequality and promote women’s empowerment is to elect more women to office. I’m all for improving women’s ability to participate in the economy and increasing enrollment rates of girls in school, but those are part of the longer-term strategy. A reservation policy allows a society to put gender equity on the fast track by giving a jolt to the status quo.

Having a female parliamentary majority has made Rwanda a more equitable society. For example, all proposed legislation is reviewed to determine whether it perpetuates or reduces gender bias. No piece of legislation that moves through parliament escapes this scrutiny. That’s the kind of jolt I’m talking about.

In the 2015 Bread for the World Institute Hunger Report, When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger, we recommend that all U.S. development assistance include similar gender analysis – aimed at ensuring that policies and programs do not perpetuate gender inequalities or discriminate against women and girls. In practice, this would mean, for instance, that agricultural development assistance must serve female and male farmers equitably.

A major change like this might even produce a great enough seismic effect to affect how the U.S. government conducts domestic policy. Here in the United States, women hold less than 20 percent of seats in Congress. In the 1970s, when Congress was debating the Equal Rights Amendment, policymakers considered congressional reservations as a way of giving women more political voice. This was not the sole reason the ERA failed to gain ratification, but an association with the ERA may be one reason we scarcely ever hear members of Congress -- including women -- talk about political reservations as a strategy to increase the share of women in Congress.

It is difficult to imagine what the impact on legislation of a female majority in Congress would be. Perhaps there would be no difference at all, although I doubt it. There is too much room for improvement. Just one example: the United States remains the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. I suspect that would change if there were a majority of women in Congress. Todd Post

On the Way: The 2015 Hunger Report

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On November 24, which is the Monday of Thanksgiving week, Bread for the World Institute will launch our 2015 Hunger Report: When Women Flourish … We Will End Hunger. Just before Thanksgiving is when we launch each new edition of the report. What better time of the year in the United States to draw attention to hunger?

In the coming weeks, as the launch approaches, I plan to preview the report on this blog. I’ll share a little of what’s in the report and offer some personal reflections. I write most of the report, but I don’t get the opportunity within it to discuss how writing it has affected me.

When Women Flourish is about women’s empowerment, and why women’s empowerment is so important to ending hunger. The last several editions of the Hunger Report also had plenty to say about women’s empowerment, but this is the first one where we’ve put the issue front and center.

Hunger persists mainly because poverty persists. To really eradicate hunger, you have to address the root causes of poverty, and discrimination is the most fundamental of all root causes. Discrimination defines who we think people are and what we believe they are worth. It determines the limited aspirations that too many parents have for their daughters. If girls are seen as an economic burden to a family, for example, it is not surprising that they die in greater numbers than boys as a result of underinvestment in their health -- including the share of food they receive.

Ending hunger ultimately depends on working with and through women: in the developing world, women work predominantly as subsistence farmers, and subsistence farming is the backbone of community food security. In addition, at the household level, women are responsible for preparing the food that nourishes children and other family members. (This holds true for the most part in rich countries, too).

Yet we did not want to instrumentalize women – seeing and talking about them only as foot soldiers in the fight against hunger. Empowerment is about much more than food production and preparation.

Similarly, discrimination is about more than just gender discrimination. Race, ethnicity, religion, caste, and other drivers of social exclusion also figure into who goes hungry and who doesn’t. We could have done a report focused on race, ethnicity, or any other layer – they all interact. But in this report, we start with gender.

The report looks at three fundamental topics: improving women’s bargaining power in the economy and in the household; reducing the burden of unpaid domestic work and sharing it more equitably between men and women and between families and government; and strengthening women’s collective voice by increasing their political representation and leadership in civil society. I’ll write more about each of these in the coming weeks. For the remainder of this blog post, I’d like to offer a personal reflection.

I learned a great deal while working on the 2015 Hunger Report, as I do on each edition, but on this report there were some real jaw droppers. Let me single out child marriage. When I learned that one out of nine girls around the world becomes a child bride – that’s 39,000 per day -- it was a moment when amazement doesn’t seem too strong a word.

Why was I so surprised? Maybe because child marriage isn’t a big issue here in the United States. I was already aware of the grotesque levels of gender-based violence, the one in three women who will experience it during their lives. Gender-based violence, on the other hand, is also common right here in the United States as elsewhere, so even though the statistics are still disturbing and I wouldn’t say I’ve become indifferent, there’s a certain degree of numbness that sets in after time.

The child marriage figure one in nine is for the whole world, so when you zero in on the countries where this is a common occurrence, you find statistics like three out of four girls in Niger, two out of three in Bangladesh, and one in two in India. Most countries where child marriage is prevalent have laws against it, but changing cultural norms is not as simple as changing laws.

Five years ago, I was in Bangladesh visiting an agricultural program and talking with beneficiaries. The program officer brought me to the farm of probably the most successful farmer in the village. She was not only an able farmer but clearly had charisma. She was probably no more than 30 at the time, and her daughter, a girl about half her age, walked with us by her mother’s side. Behind us was a much older man, over 60 at least, possibly beyond 70. He had trouble keeping up. Only when we stopped and she described what she was doing on each part of the farm did he catch up, standing quietly off to the side until we charged on ahead again. He was her husband. The word marriage doesn’t seem to fit this situation, though. Given the age of their daughter, the farmer could have become this man’s wife when she was as young as 12 or 13. Find out more about child marriage and the damage it does here. Todd Post

Three Charts, Three Important Stats from New Poverty Numbers

Yesterday, the Census Bureau released its most recent data on U.S. income, poverty, and health care for 2013. The data reflected the first drop in the nation’s poverty rate since 2006, from 15 percent in 2012 to 14.5 percent in 2013. The poverty rate among children fell more significantly, from 21.8 percent to 19.9 percent—its first decline since 2000. Thanks to job market growth, 2.8 million more people had full-time, year-round employment in 2013 than in 2012, enabling them to better support their families in 2013.

Beyond the topline national poverty rates for various groups, the data can tell us a great deal more.  Here are three graphics that help explain where the limited growth from the economic recovery is focused, which groups are noticing gains, and which groups still aren’t.

1. Poverty Falls for Every Major Racial/Ethnic Group for First Time Since 2006

Poverty Rates at Recession High, 2012, and 2013 by Race and Ethnicity

2013 was the first year since 2006 that the poverty rate fell across the racial/ethnic board. While the drop was not statistically significant for all groups except Hispanics, this is important news because it signals that the gains from economic growth are finally beginning to be felt by all—a sign of a more sustainable and equitably shared recovery. It should not have taken this long for this to happen, and we can make statistically significant advances against poverty across all groups if Congress and the President make decisive investments in human capital development, job creation, and better wages.

2. Top 10 Percent Gains, Everyone Else Loses

Percent Change in Real Income, 2010-2013, by Income Percentiles

This graphic helps us appreciate even the small poverty rate decline reported for 2013, because in reality, the vast majority of the working population earned less real income that year than they did after the Great Recession. Almost all of the benefits of economic growth since the recession have been captured by those who need them least—the top 10 percent of income earners. This is part of a much greater income inequality story, in motion since the 1970s. Without a robust policy response from our leaders, we will remain on the track of prosperity for a few, not for all. 

3. The Gender Gap Continues to Slowly Narrow

Amount Earned by Women for Every Dollar Earned by Men, 1960-2013

Women’s earnings relative to men’s grew by another percentage point in 2013, advancing the long, slow march to wage equality another step. Women now earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, up from 77 cents in 2012. The gender wage gap has been closing since women started to enter the workforce at an increasing rate in the 1960s. While differences in education and training account for some of the wage gap, much more is due to gender discrimination.

Most of the numbers released yesterday showed nominal improvements for America’s working class and those facing poverty and hunger in 2013, but we should be encouraged by them. We know that with the right steps we can make dramatic progress toward not only reducing, but ending hunger and poverty in the United States by 2030. But 2013 was a dismal year for Congressional action on any of those steps. If anything, inaction through the sequester, the government shutdown and persistent austerity proposals threatened to reverse progress that year.   

If we can sustain economic growth and poverty reduction even through complete Congressional inaction, imagine where we could be if our policy makers were to get serious about ending hunger and poverty.

Read more about the steps Congress and the president must take to end hunger in the 2014 Hunger Report, Ending Hunger in America. Derek Schwabe

Raising the Minimum Wage Can Help When Work Ends

We’ve talked before about how workers can benefit from an increased minimum wage, but the advantages continue even after health problems keep people from employment.  A higher minimum wage allows people to pay more into the Social Security system, therefore qualifying for increased disability and retirement benefits. 

Poster describing Social Security
1956 poster (via SSA.gov)

We can compare the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to what would happen if Congress passed the minimum wage bill it’s currently considering.  To make the numbers simple, assume that any wage changes would occur on January 1 each year.  The minimum wage would be $8.20 an hour in 2016, $9.15 an hour in 2017, and $10.10 in 2018.  After that, it would increase based on the Consumer Price Index; let’s assume an increase of 2.76%, which was the average increase over the past 25 years (1989-2013).  After rounding to the nearest nickel as the law dictates, that would be $10.40 in 2019, $10.70 in 2020, and $11 in 2021.

What would this really mean for someone who becomes disabled? Imagine a woman named Anne.  She started a minimum wage job on her 19th birthday, which was January 1, 2014, and works an average of 30 hours a week.  That’s not uncommon; in 2013, there were over 1.6 million people aged 16-24 in minimum wage jobs.

By the end of 2021, Anne would earn a total of $25,038 more if the minimum wage were increased as described above than she would if her salary stayed at $7.25 an hour.  From this additional income, she would contribute $1552 more than she otherwise would have into Social Security’s disability and retirement insurance system, if the withholding rate for those programs stays at its current level of 6.2%.

That extra investment in Social Security could pay off for Anne.  At the end of December 2021, Anne experiences a severe health problem that keeps her from working, she will qualify for higher Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.  Nobody likes to think about becoming too sick to work, but over 224,000 people aged 30 and under get SSDI; some of the most common reasons include injuries, mental illness, intellectual disabilities, and neurological disorders like epilepsy.  Experiencing medical problems is challenging enough without adding hunger and extreme poverty to the equation.

Using the detailed Social Security benefits calculator we can see what a difference a change in the minimum wage would make to Anne.  If the minimum wage increased as described above, she’d receive $1091 a month in disability benefits in 2022.  If the minimum wage stays at $7.25 an hour, she’d get just $1010 a month.  It might not sound like a big difference, and it will be a challenge to live on either amount in 2022, but raising the minimum wage will increase Anne’s disability benefits by more than 8%.  From the time Anne starts receiving SSDI (there is a five-month wait after becoming disabled) to the end of 2027, assuming annual cost-of-living adjustments of 2.76%, raising the minimum wage would provide her an extra $5859.  That’s money for housing, for transportation to the doctor’s office, for retraining in a new career.  It could be money for food. 

Raising the minimum wage would help people like Anne while she works, and also allows them to pay more money into the Social Security system.  This helps strengthen the system for current retirees and people with disabilities, and provides a stronger safety net if their working lives do end.

Stacy Cloyd

The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Minimum Wage: Two Sides of the Same Coin

What can $1247 a month buy you?  Imagine paying for housing, food, utilities, transportation, and other essentials on that amount, which is full-time work at the federal minimum wage.  Factor in little things that can bust a tight budget: a Christmas present for your mom, an occasional haircut, some tissues and medicine when you get a bad cold.  Could you afford to put aside anything for a medical emergency, a car repair, or retirement? Would you feel motivated and prepared to go back to school, or to get married and start a family?

coins falling into a person's cupped hands
Illustration by taxcredits.net

In this situation, don’t count on public benefits.  A single, childless person with this income would earn $2 too much for SNAP benefits and be $52 a month over income for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).  In many states, this minimum wage worker would also fall into a coverage gap, earning too much for Medicaid and not enough to receive a subsidy for private medical insurance. 

There are two big ways to help low-wage workers in this situation: raise the minimum wage, or expand the EITC.  They each have pros and cons, but the good news is we don’t have to choose. 

The EITC arrives once a year.  A lump sum can help pay off debt or create savings accounts for retirement or emergencies, but if it’s November and your car breaks down or your day care bill is due, it doesn’t do much good to have a bunch of money heading your way in April.  Researchers have studied the best way to have EITC payments arrive throughout the year and various forms of this “periodic EITC” are part of Rep. Paul Ryan’s and Sen. Marco Rubio’s anti-poverty plans, but this could be a lot more complicated, inaccurate, and burdensome for employers to calculate than a simple change in the minimum wage would be.

Another difference is while everyone earning the minimum wage would benefit from its increase (so would  many of those earning slightly more, who would get raises to keep their salaries above less senior workers) the EITC is highly targeted.  It’s more generous to married couples and people with children, it is only available to people aged 25-64.  Also, you have to file a tax return to get it.  This might be a good way to encourage people to file tax returns, which helps the government keep track of people’s earnings so they get the right amount of Social Security benefits later on.  The EITC also rewards people who get married and helps ease the financial burden of having kids; that’s good for them but not for younger, older, or childless workers.  There’s bipartisan support for expanding the program, but disagreement on how to pay for that. 

“How to pay for that” is the final difference between raising the minimum wage and expanding the EITC—but it’s not as big a difference as some might think.  Wages are paid by employers, some of whom may cut their profits or raise their prices if they are required to pay their workers more.  This means shareholders and consumers ultimately pay the price.  The EITC is paid by the government, from taxes and other revenues.  Either way, the costs get spread around quite widely.  So does the cost of inaction, of keeping wages and tax subsidies low.  When full-time workers qualify for SNAP or go to the emergency room without insurance, the public pays.

The EITC and the minimum wage are not opponents; they are two roads to the same place.  If the minimum wage goes up, fewer people will need the EITC.  And by increasing the number of people served by the EITC and the benefit they receive from it, we can help people attain the stability they need to train and apply for higher-wage jobs.  The minimum wage and the EITC are different, but they can both make a big difference.

Stacy Cloyd

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

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

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