Tag Archives: food stamps

Childhood Food Insecurity in America

This past year, lighthearted quizzes have been popular to share and discuss on social media. They’ve allowed to me to find out everything from what U.S. state I actually belong in to which Disney princess I would be if I existed in the cartoon realm, simply by answering odd and seemingly unrelated questions about my personality and preferences. The researcher in me feels a little annoyed at how unscientific these assessments are, but at the same time they are sometimes too fun to pass up–and somehow the results can feel so valid. I’m definitely not opposed to the idea of living in New York as Mulan.

As fun as it can be to spend free time taking and sharing these quizzes, one quiz that ought to go viral is the Hunger Quiz from the Feeding America charity. While it won’t tell you which vegetable you are, it will inform you of some of the surprising facts about hunger in America, and possibly some of your misconceptions about food insecurity. A take-home message is that hunger is a significant problem in America that can alleviated. But what can we do about it?

In a new Future of Children research report, professors Craig Gunderson of the University of Illinois and James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky use the latest research to describe childhood food insecurity in the U.S. They write that the government defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food” and surprisingly, in 2012, over 1 in 5 children met this criterion. This is disheartening, especially since the government spent over $100 billion in fiscal year 2012 on federal food-assistance programs.

The authors argue that one reason food insecurity rates remain stubbornly high is that we don’t fully understand what causes food insecurity or how programs help alleviate it. The research in the report helps fill this gap and can contribute to policy initiatives that could result in powerful improvements in the health and wellbeing of children.

In upcoming blog posts, we’ll be exploring factors that contribute to food insecurity and what policies are worth consideration in light of these factors. To learn more about food insecurity in America, see the Fall 2014 research report in the Future of Children.

New Census Measure Provides More Detailed View of Poverty

The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced plans to publish a new poverty measure in conjunction with the traditional measure, a move that can shed additional light on vulnerable populations and how current policies are serving them. While the new measure will not replace the current one in policies and determining program eligibility and funding, it will reveal a more nuanced view of the experience of lower-income Americans.
The standard measure, first published in 1964 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, calculates a federal poverty threshold based on food expenditures as determined by the “thrifty food plan” developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The measure is quite simple; it presumes that food expenditures should make up a third a household’s budget, so it simply multiplies the amount allowed under the thrifty food plan by three. Families are considered poor if their household income falls below this level. While the threshold has been continually adjusted to account for inflation, it does not account for regional differences. Even more problematic is that over the past half-century food prices have dropped relative to expenses such as housing; given that housing costs have soared since the 1960’s, the current measure does not accurately capture the financial strain of some families.
The new measure is based on different calculations of necessary spending and family resources. Household spending includes the costs of food, housing, utilities, and clothing, as well as a little bit extra. Family resources include not only income, but also in-kind benefits such as food stamps. The resource measure also subtracts taxes and tax credits, work expenses such as commuting costs and childcare, and out-of-pocket medical expenses to represent the family’s actual ability to cover the expenses listed above. This more accurate and thorough measure acknowledges the complexity of resources and spending, and it allows for geographic adjustment such as greater costs in places with more expensive housing.
Scheduled to be released annually starting in fall 2011, this new measure will help policy evaluation in three major ways. First, it will help determine if all vulnerable populations are being reached. Second, by including additional measures of needs and resources, researchers and policy makers can better analyze whether assistance programs are mitigating families’ experiences of poverty, such as the difference food stamps make to a family. Third, the measure will show how much necessary expenses add to a family’s burden. By extending beyond food costs to include housing, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and utilities, policy makers can identify areas where the poor need the most help to fulfill their families’ needs.
As explored in an issue of The Future of Children that focuses on antipoverty policies, these types of governmental assistance for child care, health care, and education are critical for needy families. The Census’s new poverty measure allows a new insight into these issues and interventions and can provide a powerful new tool for analysis in the coming years.

For more details, see the federal government’s working group report from March 2010: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/povmeas/SPM_TWGObservations.pdf

“Disconnected Women” — Building a Needed Safety Net

A recent New York Times article noted that despite the failing economy, welfare applications have not gone up. This is contrary to trends in the 1990’s — prior to the overhaul of the system — and against common sense; when jobs dry up we expect folks to seek financial relief. Paradoxically, applications for food stamps have gone up as the economy has soured.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon. Some point to the fact that when welfare reform was implemented in 1996, the funding formula was changed so that states are wholly responsible for any expansion of the program, and increases in welfare payments are unlikely as states face deficits and funding crunches. (The food stamp program, on the other hand, is paid for by the federal government.) Others cite the cultural shift that occurred with welfare reform, making even very poor, out of work women unwilling to seek assistance. Still others point to the administrative hurdles posed by the welfare system, leaving even needy people unlikely to seek assistance.
Many agree that the system is not doing what it is supposed to. As Ron Haskins – FOC senior editor and one of the authors of the 1996 welfare bill — noted in the NYT piece, “There is ample reason to be concerned here…The overall structure is not working the way it was designed to work. We would expect, just on the face it, that when a deep recession happens, people could go back on welfare…When we started this, Democratic and Republican governors alike said, ‘We know what’s best for our state; we’re not going to let people starve’….And now that the chips are down, and unemployment is going up, most states are not doing enough to help families get back on the rolls.”
The fact that welfare rolls are stagnant is of particular concern for the most vulnerable families – those for whom steady work is already a challenge, even in a good economy. As Rebecca Blank notes in her article, “Improving the Safety Net for Single Mothers Who Face Serious Barriers to Work,” 20 to 24 percent of all low-income mothers (under 200% of the poverty line) were not connected to welfare or work in 2004 – when the economy was much stronger.
These “disconnected women” are likely to report multiple barriers to work: less education, younger children, higher rates of poor mental and physical health, higher rates of substance abuse, and a greater history of being victims of domestic violence. They are more likely to have been sanctioned for non-work or reached the federally imposed five year time limit.
Blank proposes creating a new “Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program,” which would emphasize work, but also provide the necessary safety net and recognize that not all of these “disconnected women” will be able to work fulltime. Such a program would be an extension of the current welfare program and would include case-managers to assess health, skill level, and income; link to services; and help apply for other relief programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
As an alternative, the SSI program, which serves disabled Americans and is paid for with federal dollars, could be altered to allow for more temporary or partial disability determinations. The current program is something of an “all or nothing” program; many disconnected women have disabilities that are not permanent or severe enough to qualify them for benefits.
Whatever the policy solution, Blank notes a “public conversation about women for whom welfare-to-work efforts have failed is long overdue.” This is true not only for women with multiple barriers, but in a down economy, perhaps for the larger low-income population as well.