A new look for the first of the month

For those working low-wage jobs and receiving SNAP benefits, November 1 is not as good as October 1.

All right! The first of the month! Always a big day for those living paycheck to paycheck. And November 1 is no exception.

Yet, for those working low-wage jobs and receiving SNAP benefits, November 1 is not as good as October 1. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which many know as Food Stamps. And it’s under constant attack.In Iowa, the more than 420,000 people who count on food assistance can count on less this month than they received a month ago.

Same goes for SNAP recipients across the country, as benefits drop with the expiration of small improvements that were passed in the 2009 Recovery Act.

SNAP benefits in Iowa have averaged about $116 a month per recipient — about $246 per household.* That works out to just about $1.30 per meal per person. Take a look below at what happens to that supplemental benefit when the modest improvement from the Recovery Act goes away today.

 SNAPmonthlyCut-1-31-13

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3899

Our economy has not fully recovered from the Great Recession. And if it’s not enough that this Recovery Act improvement is expiring before the work is done, recognize that some in Congress see right now as a time to whack away further at SNAP benefits as a new Farm Bill is negotiated.

Now, we might not like to hear that some 13 percent of the state’s population is receiving food assistance. But you don’t address that issue by just cutting benefits to those people who are stuck in low-wage jobs, or are children, or are seniors, or are disabled.You need to make the jobs better, which starts with an increase in the minimum wage and pressure on Iowa businesses that pay low wages to do better. If we want a higher-road economy, we need to put a better foundation under it.

Mike OwenPosted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

* Iowa Department of Human Services, Food Assistance Program State Summary for September 2013, Report Series F-1.

Why, again, would it make sense to cut SNAP?

Food insecurity has grown in Iowa, we have not recovered from the Great Recession, and SNAP benefits — which only augment household food budgets and are already scheduled for cuts this fall — may be slashed.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will be considering severe cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Already, SNAP benefits are scheduled to be cut in November because Recovery Act improvements will expire. Any discussion among Iowans about even more SNAP cuts should not miss this context:

Food security remains a serious challenge. In Iowa, the latest report from USDA suggests this has risen by almost one-third in the last decade, from 9.1 percent in 2000-02 to 12.6 percent in 2010-12. (three-year averages) The increase is even greater proportionally for families in more severe situations. See this information from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership.

SNAP use certainly has risen in the last several years — just as it was supposed to in tough times. We have not fully recovered from the Great Recession, but things are getting better and SNAP use will level off and decline as we recover. CBO predicts SNAP spending nationally to fall to 1995 levels by 2019. See this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

SNAP is only a supplemental benefit, but a critical one even at only about $1.25 per meal per person in Iowa. We show the share of Iowans who benefit from SNAP, by county and by congressional district, in maps on our Facebook page  (compiled from Iowa Department of Human Services reports and U.S. Census data). By the numbers, here is the share of the population in each Iowa congressional district receiving food assistance in July:

1st District — 12.3 percent; about 94,000 people.
2nd District — 15.8 percent; about 121,000 people.
3rd District — 14.7 percent, about 115,000 people.
4th District — 12 percent, about 91,000 people.
Here’s the county-by-county look (note, the golder and greener a county, the greater percentage of the population receives food assistance):
CI-MapTemplate

The House bill would end categorical eligibility, which permits states to provide access to SNAP benefits for families just above the SNAP earnings limit of 130 percent of poverty. Iowa in 2008 used this option to expand gross income eligibility to 160 percent of poverty. An Iowa Fiscal Partnership policy brief last November noted this is particularly important for low-income working families with children, particularly when child care takes such a big bite out of their budgets.

SNAP is a work support. Contrary to the claims of detractors, SNAP is one of those benefits that enable people to take jobs they otherwise would not be able to accept. When we have an economy that is producing jobs that pay below what is needed to get by, these work support programs are critical. We have illustrated the issues there with our Cost of Living in Iowa research, where we have demonstrated that even at median wage, many Iowa families would not get by were it not for work support programs.
Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director

Score one for economic reality: Public jobs matter

Public-sector spending feeds private industry, and creates new jobs in the private sector. To pretend otherwise is foolish.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Today’s New York Times editorial, “The Myth of Job Creation,” takes both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney to task for their comments in the second debate about the importance of public-sector (government) jobs.

As the Times noted:

Public-sector job loss means trouble for everyone. Government jobs are crucial to education, public health and safety, environmental protection, defense, homeland security and myriad other functions that the private sector cannot fulfill. They are also critical for private-sector job growth in … fundamental ways.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we have made this case repeatedly in Iowa over the last few years, both in response to cutbacks in Iowa budgets and to misinformed political assaults on federal stimulus spending, which did a good job bridging revenue gaps in Iowa to prevent worse cutbacks in public-sector spending. See our latest “Iowa JobWatch.”

In Iowa, 1 in 6 jobs is a government job, at the local, state or national level. How is it possible that roughly a quarter-million jobs in our state do not have an important impact on our economy? The answer of course is that they do. The lion’s share of those jobs are in local government, so they are scattered across the state. They are filled by our neighbors, buying goods and services from local businesses and keeping kids in our schools. As the Times notes, regarding comments by both presidential candidates suggesting that “government does not create jobs”:

Except that it does, millions of them — including teachers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers, sailors, astronauts, epidemiologists, antiterrorism agents, park rangers, diplomats, governors (Mr. Romney’s old job) and congressmen (like Paul Ryan).

As with shortsighted approaches in budgeting that attempt to resolve all deficit issues with spending cuts, instead of taking a balanced approach to both the spending and revenue sides of the budget ledger, our leaders make a mistake when they think all new jobs have to be in the private sector or they don’t matter. Public-sector spending feeds private industry, and creates new jobs in the private sector. To pretend otherwise is foolish.

It’s always good when a dose of fiscal and economic reality hits the public debate. But it is unfortunate that it doesn’t happen more often.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

The bridge to recovery

The stimulus, or Recovery Act, clearly succeeded in bridging the gap in revenues caused by the recession.

There’s a whole lot of politickin’ going on these days and one of the targets is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, or the “stimulus.”

One of the points we made at the Iowa Fiscal Partnership during and after the adoption of the Recovery Act was its use as a “bridge” for state services. As we note on our IFP website, “economic stimulus measures need to be targeted, timely and temporary, to act as a bridge across the economic and fiscal valley of a recession.”

Recall that some in the Legislature, and some folks during the 2010 campaign season, complained that such use of “one-time funds” was a bad idea for ongoing services — that it would create a “cliff” in funding that, once exhausted, would leave the state on the hook for new responsibilities it might not be able to afford.

Late last week, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency shed new light on this discussion with a simple bar graph on the front page of one of its “Issue Review” reports, this one about Iowa state appropriations over time.

Iowa appropriations graph
Source: Iowa Legislative Services Agency, August 2012

Note the green portion of the bars, representing where ARRA funds filled in for lower state revenues caused by the Great Recession. No cliff emerged following the use of ARRA funds as state revenues (the red portions of the bars) rose. But note from FY2009 to FY2010 how state resources might have fallen without the ARRA funds. That potential cliff would have threatened state funding of education and health services that Iowans depend upon.

Clearly, the folks promoting one-time-fund orthodoxy were wrong, and the “bridge” analogy was spot-on.

The stimulus successfully bridged the gap in revenues to stop the critical loss of state services, and maintain the benefit of those services to the state’s economy.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Nonsense from the Far Right

Fortunately, the discerning Iowan can find the facts about the federal budget by looking for them, and not buying into Dick Morris’ spin.

Political consultant Dick Morris slipped into Iowa last week, and the Spin-O-Meter was in overdrive.

Now, rather than repeat Mr. Morris’ misinformation, here is a link to a Des Moines Register story about his appearance at a rally orchestrated by the national right-wing organization Americans for Prosperity.

What Iowans need to know is that (1) Morris is wrong about what is driving the federal budget deficits, and (2) the causes are clear: You can’t cut taxes and fight two wars at the same time without digging a big budget hole.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities graph
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

As shown in the graph at right from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the economic downturn, President Bush’s tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq explain the vast majority of the deficit through 2019. One thing folks must recognize is that deficits caused by those factors cause more debt down the road, because we have to keep paying interest. Even after the Iraq war ended, we have to keep paying for it.

As we deal with these self-inflicted budget problems, we must maintain the fundamental and long-accepted responsibilities of our nation — to care for the most vulnerable and put them on their feet to get work and succeed in our economy.

Dick Morris has a big megaphone to try to instill something other than a factual presentation about what’s causing our deficits and debt. Fortunately, the discerning Iowan can find the facts by looking for them, and not buying into the conventional spin he delivers in his traveling medicine show.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Unreasonable fear about ‘one-time’ money

Using stimulus funds bridged a gap in revenues and kept Iowa out of a race to the bottom.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

You hear about it whenever some Iowa politicians get near a microphone to talk about the budget.

Heard above much wailing and gnashing of teeth is a common complaint that Iowa used “one-time money” to deal with recession-driven budget challenges.

Well, thank goodness for (1) that one-time money and (2) the willingness of state leaders at the time, including then-Governor Chet Culver, to spend it.

The Des Moines Register gets it, and isn’t afraid to say so in today’s editorial:

Yes, Iowa did it by shifting money set aside in savings accounts for other purposes, and it used one-time federal stimulus money. That was the right thing to do. The alternative would have been to lay off police officers, teachers and state workers, making the recession even worse in Iowa.

The state is in better shape financially now. It has the money to pay for essential services it has committed to provide to Iowans. The Legislature and the governor should pay to carry out those commitments.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) has pointed out that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, (ARRA), the economic stimulus program passed in 2009, was designed to provide targeted, timely and temporary assistance to Americans in the recession. As IPP’s Andrew Cannon noted in a recent IFP report, “Catching Up: Context for 2012 Budget Decisions in Iowa”:

Andrew Cannon
Andrew Cannon

While there is certainly merit in reducing the use of one-time money for the continuing expenses of the state, one-time-fund critics sometimes let strict adherence to that concept get the best of them. For instance, Recovery Act dollars were used precisely as intended: targeted, timely and temporary relief so that states could continue funding critical services, such as K-12 education and health services to individuals and families. State revenues declined precipitously during the worst of the recession; the Recovery Act bridged that drop-off in revenues until a time when revenues improved as the economy regained strength. The same can be said for use of $38.7 million from one of the rainy-day funds since high unemployment and reduced revenues during the year must constitute the rainy revenue day that the fund was designed to cover.

Had the Legislature and Governor Culver chosen not to use the ARRA funds, it is reasonable to assume that the holes created in recession would be left unfilled in better times. This is because one of the priority pieces of legislation passed in 2011 was the creation of a “Taxpayers Trust Fund” to pay for new tax breaks, the fund to be built from revenues coming in at a faster pace than expected. The priority was not to sustain or restore services, let alone enhance them, but to restrain use of new revenues.

Using the ARRA money when it came, for its intended purpose to bridge a revenue gap caused by recession, kept critical services in place when they were most needed, and kept us off the pace of a race to the bottom. Thank you to The Des Moines Register for reminding its readers of that smart public policy.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Budgeting in context

The budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context.

Andrew Cannon
Andrew Cannon

Following last year’s prolonged legislative session, legislators and the governor congratulated themselves for a budget that fully funded programs and reduced reliance on what they called “one-time funds.”

It is true that state services, systems and structures were funded to a large degree through a stable source, the General Fund (where income and sales taxes are pooled). And funding levels increased generally, especially in comparison to the recession-affected budgets of FY10 and FY11, when many state services and programs took severe cuts.

But the budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context, as we do in a new report.

First, the use of “one-time funds” proved to be the right choice at the time. Because of the recession, state revenues declined precipitously, which led to a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut. One-time funds now derided by some were used precisely as intended. State “rainy day” funds, reserved for economic emergencies, and the federal Recovery Act (ARRA) combined to fill budget gaps and save services. ARRA provided billions of dollars to Iowa to finance K-12 education, higher education, and health care programs for children, the elderly, Iowans with disabilities and low-income Iowans who had no other access to health insurance.

Second, consider how funding for state services and programs compares to pre-recession funding levels. Even as revenues have bounced back, and funding for many services has stabilized, it is unclear if present levels are adequate to met needs. For instance, state funding for community colleges in FY12 will reach about $164 million, up from FY10 and FY11 levels, but still remain below pre-recession levels. At the same time, community colleges are serving more Iowans than ever, with enrollment reaching 106,000 in FY11, up from 88,000 students in FY08.

Iowa’s other public higher education system, the Board of Regents, this year is working under a 3 percent reduction in funding from FY11. Even with the governor’s proposed FY13 increase, Regents funding would still be below recession levels, to say nothing of pre-recession levels. Students pay the price, with continually increasing tuition costs.

Other programs, such as the Early Childhood Iowa initiative, which provides preschool tuition subsidies and parental education; Child Care Assistance, which helps low-income working parents cover the cost of child care; and the Family Investment Program, which helps the lowest-income families meet basic needs and prepare for employment, all have seen large cuts in funding since before the recession. Even into economic recovery, some programs are still being reduced.

Improving upon last year or the year before is good, but the long-term question asks if we are adequately funding programs to meet Iowans’ needs and to adequately invest in Iowa’s future. Judicious use of public funds is not as simple as cutting services to bring down expenses, but taking a balanced approach that assures adequate funding for services that position Iowa for the future.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate