Money 101

Photo by Letty Salamanca

News Analysis: Money and Hunger 101

Charting the intersection between food, money and federal policy

By J. Skyler McKinley

At its core, the story of hunger in Washington, D.C. and the world is a story about money.

More than that, it’s a story about children who go to school hungry because they did not have breakfast at home, adults who lose concentration because they cannot afford to buy lunch and families that suffer stomach pangs while worrying about where their next meal will come from.

But, if there is a common thread running through the disparate strands of D.C.’s hunger story, it spools from two staggeringly simple truths: Food costs money, and those who cannot afford to eat go hungry.

It’s a phenomenon that the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that tracks hunger in America, describes as “food insecurity.”

A household is “food secure,” according to a September 2013 USDA report, if its members have “consistent, dependable access to enough food for living.”

In contrast, a “food insecure” household is one that reported difficulties in providing enough food to feed all of its members at some point during the year.

The USDA found that 12 percent of the D.C. population – approximately 76,000 people, or one in every eight residents – belonged to a food insecure household. While these citizens reported that paying for enough food was a struggle at times, they did not necessarily go hungry. Instead, they got by with reduced variety in their diets and less costly foods.

D.C. Food Insecurity

Five percent of D.C. residents have it worse. About 32,000 people reported “very low food security,” a more severe range of food insecurity in which people have to eat less than they need.

According to a 2012 study by Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, there is a $60 million gulf between what D.C. residents can afford to eat and what they would need to spend to be considered food secure.

At first glance, then, the solution to D.C.’s hunger problem may appear simple: Narrow that gap by giving more money, through federal nutritional subsidies and other programs, to those who need it to buy food.

The apparent simplicity of that approach betrays the fact that hunger is an innately political and economic beast – one inextricably linked to poverty and ensnared in an intricate web of federal policy, competing budget priorities and a left versus right debate taking place in the national spotlight’s glare.

To begin to understand hunger in D.C., you first have to understand some of the basics. Here are some answers to common questions revolving around the economic elements of hunger as a social problem.

1) I thought the federal government gave out food stamps to make sure nobody goes hungry. So why are one in eight D.C. residents still food insecure?

It’s true that the food stamp program, renamed by Congress in 2008 to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides low-income families and individuals a monthly stipend to spend on food. In the District, according to April 2014 figures from the USDA (which distributes SNAP benefits):

  • 143,213 people participate in SNAP. That represents nearly one out of every four D.C. residents.

  • These people received an average benefit of $135.17 a month in benefits to be spent on food at participating retailers in fiscal year 2013. That’s about $4.50 a day.

But if the program, by design, gives money for people to buy food, why is it that thousands of D.C. residents still report food insecurity? The short answer is that the monthly SNAP benefit might not be enough to cover an individual’s or family’s monthly food needs.

According to Feeding America, the average cost of a meal in D.C. is $3.77. If someone were to purchase three meals a day for an entire month, then, it would cost them about $340. That’s more than double the average monthly SNAP benefit in the District – so it’s easy to see why 12 percent of the population say they are food insecure, even with SNAP.

It’s worth noting that SNAP, by its very name, is designed to supplement an individual’s or family’s income. But if benefits don’t make up the difference between income and what it costs recipients to buy the food they need, they go hungry.

Cost vs. Benefit

Source: “Map the Meal Gap,” Feeding America and “SNAP Average Monthly Benefits,” United States Department of Agriculture. Graphic by J. Skyler McKinley

As Donald Shepard, a health economist at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., put it in a phone interview, “There are people who are in SNAP for whom the program doesn’t meet all of their needs – and if those needs aren’t met, those people remain food insecure.”

2) If some people do not receive enough money from SNAP, why doesn’t the USDA just expand the program?

The USDA’s funding, for SNAP and other programs, is allocated by Congress. That means that any expansion requires a legislative seal of approval. And, with congressional gridlock at an all time high, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.

The debate breaks down along party lines.

Democrats generally support increasing SNAP funding. They argue that the program is a key part of the federal welfare “safety net” for low-income Americans.

Take, for example, the Sept. 19, 2013, speech on the House floor by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi encapsulating the sentiment in her caucus: “People from all walks of life have relied on the SNAP program to make it through tough and trying times.”

Congressional Republicans, in contrast, hold up SNAP’s current price tag – in addition to instances of “waste, fraud and abuse” – as evidence that SNAP’s budgetary waistline needs some slimming down.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the libertarian-aligned Cato Institute in Washington. He penned an October 2013 policy analysis calling the food aid program “deeply troubled,” citing its spending growth from $17 billion in 2000 to nearly $80 billion in 2013.

“We’re spending too much for what we’re getting from SNAP,” Tanner said in a phone interview. “We’re spending more on SNAP for more people, and yet hunger is still a problem in America. That suggests, to me, that we’re not making the most efficient use of the billions we spend on this program.”

Tanner said that House and Senate Republicans were wrong to use abuse as means of justifying reductions to SNAP funding, noting that the fraud rate is at a record low.

“The program really isn’t abused that much,” he said. “We should be against abuse, but it’s not like you have a good program that bad people are taking advantage of. What you have is a bad program.”

Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, seems to agree, saying in the GOP response to the 2011 State of the Union address that the federal welfare regime “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”

Democrats, then, view SNAP as the cornerstone of a social safety net. For Republicans, the program is more of a hammock.

3) I read somewhere that Congress made cuts to SNAP. What’s the story there?

SNAP benefits have been reduced twice in the past year – once as a result of the expiration of a temporary boost to the program and once because of deliberate Congressional action.

On Feb. 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus, into law. That bill was designed to soften the impact of the recent recession among the American people, and, according to the USDA, included a $45.7 billion increase in SNAP funding that began trickling out to recipients in April 2009.

But the increase was always intended to be a temporary measure and, by statute, it ended on Nov. 1, 2013.

Overall, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found, D.C. SNAP recipients lost a total of about $15 million in benefits with the expiration of the recovery act. Households with one member lost $11 in monthly benefits, those with two members lost $20, those with three members lost $29 and those with four members lost $36 dollars.

Congress made additional cuts to SNAP benefits with the recent passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014, the farm bill signed into law by Obama in early February. The bill contained provisions running the agricultural policy gamut, from commodity programs to crop insurance rural development, organic farming – and, notably, $8.7 billion in reductions to SNAP benefits over the next decade, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

That figure represented something of a compromise number. A September 2013 bill passed by the Republican-controlled House would have trimmed SNAP benefits by $39 billion over a decade, while the Democratic-controlled Senate approved $4.5 billion in cuts to the program in a June 2012 vote.

The U.S. Capitol Building in April 2014. Photo by Victoria St. Martin.

The U.S. Capitol Building in April 2014. Photo by Victoria St. Martin.

4) So what do the farm bill cuts mean for SNAP recipients in D.C.?

It’s too soon to say with certainty. But maybe nothing.

You see, the cuts to the program came from plugging up what’s been called the “heat and eat” loophole. Essentially, SNAP recipients would receive more money from the program if they also qualified for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal aid program that grants a block amount to states to distribute to low-income people to help pay for electricity and gas.

In 16 states and D.C., SNAP recipients would be eligible for extra food aid if they received as little as $1 in heating benefits under LIHEAP, according to the Washington Post.

That’s to say that if a state gave a SNAP recipient a buck in heating subsidies, it would trigger an immediate increase in SNAP benefits – regardless of how much the recipient actually incurred in heating costs.

Congress attempted to put a stop to the practice by requiring that, to be eligible for additional SNAP money, recipients needed to receive at least $20 from their state in LIHEAP aid.

In theory, raising that bar would reduce the federal government’s SNAP bill to the tune of $8.7 billion – leading to reductions in benefits for about 850,000 households.

But, much to the ire of House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional Republicans, many of the states affected by the change in heating eligibility have simply given recipients an additional $19 in LIHEAP money – meaning they won’t face any reduction in SNAP benefits.

A good example is Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, who announced in March that his state would draw an additional $8 million from its LIHEAP grant to prevent $300 million in cuts to SNAP benefits – amounting to about $60 to $65 each month for Keystone State households.

In Pennsylvania, the increased heating expenditure won’t cost the state any extra money because the federal government has already granted the state more money than it needs in heating subsidies.

So far, the governors of six other states – New York, Connecticut, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Vermont and Montana – have done the exact same thing.

There has been little word yet on how D.C. will handle the situation, and a call to the District’s Department of Human Services remains unanswered as of press time.

But if Mayor Vincent Gray and other D.C. policymakers follow the example set by the governors of seven states, there’s a good chance the recent congressional reduction to SNAP won’t have any effect on how much District residents receive in monthly benefits.

5) Is SNAP the only federal food program?

When people think of “food stamps,” they think of SNAP. It’s the largest federal hunger program and, as a result, the one most commonly associated with the overarching government effort to address hunger in America.

But it’s certainly not the only one.

The National School Lunch Program, also administered by the USDA, provides a free or reduced-cost school lunch to eligible low-income students at more than 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and child care centers across the country. The School Breakfast Program operates the same way in 89,000 schools and institutions. And, the Child and Adult Care Food Program offers up snacks and meals to both child and adult care centers, as well as emergency shelters.

That’s not all. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known best as WIC, provides grants for states to distribute to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, as well as their children up to age five. Recipients, in turn, can use that money to buy food.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program, meanwhile, distributes food through soup kitchens and food pantries to those eligible for benefits–typically the elderly. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program operates in much the same way in participating states.

The list goes on and on. And these are just the programs under the USDA.

The entire federal welfare constellation is much larger, comprising 83 programs overall, according to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

They don’t all explicitly address hunger, obviously, but many do indirectly.

Consider TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It provides cash assistance to low-income families. Unlike SNAP, which allocates money only for food purchases at participating retailers, TANF benefits are fluid. They can be used to withdraw money or purchase whatever a family wants, including food.

In addition to all the federal subsidy programs, the hungry can turn to D.C.’s network of food pantries and hunger charities. The Capital Area Food Bank, for example, distributed nearly 15 million meals to D.C. residents last year.

All this to say that, while SNAP is a good metric to quantify attempts to reduce hunger, it doesn’t quite capture the entire picture.

6) What’s the easy answer to solving hunger in D.C. and around the country, in five sentences or fewer?

Fundamentally, the story of hunger in D.C. is an outcropping of the story of poverty. Wrapping your head around it demands an appreciation for its basic economics and major players – a list that includes Congress, federal agencies, economists, food banks, advocacy organizations and more.

While D.C.’s policy class grapples with the complexities of hunger in the District and across the country, its food insecure are faced with a decidedly more straightforward problem that can sometimes prove just as difficult to solve: finding enough to eat.

There are no easy answers to either problem.