Thanksgiving thoughts on hunger

As we discuss and debate our fiscal future, proposals should be weighed by their effects on people, not with how well the line up with some ideological ideal.

Andrew Cannon photo
Andrew Cannon

Hunger will probably be the last thing on our minds this Thursday, as we enjoy Thanksgiving feasts.

But for thousands of our neighbors, hunger an everyday reality.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) measures food security in the United States. Food security is defined as having adequate food and nutrition at all times for a healthy and active lifestyle.

An average of 12 percent, or 340,000 Iowans lacked adequate food and nutrition, or was food insecure, over a three-year period ending in 2010.

This is certainly not a new problem, but it is one that is on the rise in recent years.

Thousands of Iowans lost jobs or saw income drop as a result of the most recent recession. Food insecurity rates subsequently rose. But that number has been on the rise for much longer than just the past several years. In the mid-’90s, about 8 percent of Iowans were food insecure. By 2003, that figure had risen to 9.5 percent. By 2005, nearly 11 percent of Iowans were food insecure.

Solutions for problems as complex as food insecurity are never obvious. One thing, however, is obvious: Cutting food assistance programs will not help.

There’s an epidemic of budget-cut fever right now. Lost in the fiscal austerity discussions, however, are the effects such cuts would have on those who have been hardest hit by the recent recession, continuously rising food and fuel costs, and stagnant wages.

While some food assistance programs like the Supplemental Food Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) are safe — for now — from cuts, many others, including free and reduced-price school lunch, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which distributes nutritious fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry and other foods to food banks and pantries, are at risk of severe cuts.

As we discuss and debate our fiscal future, proposals should be weighed by their effects on people, not with how well the line up with some ideological ideal.

I recognize that I have so much for which to be thankful. The adoption of that standard by lawmakers would only make me more grateful.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

New Census measure shows good policy reduces poverty

The new measure helps policymakers view the impact of public initiatives to alleviate poverty.

Andrew Cannon photo
Andrew Cannon

Working-family tax credits and food assistance are among ways public policy lifts millions of Americans out of poverty. At the same time, continued high unemployment rates and low wages have put more and more Americans into poverty.

Those are some of the inescapable conclusions from the Census Bureau’s latest information.

In order to better capture what poverty means and how public programs help (or fail) to alleviate it, the Census Bureau devised a new poverty measure.

The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) does not replace the official poverty measure, which is used to determine eligibility for many public programs, but provides policymakers with another way of viewing the impact of public programs.

The SPM measures what it costs to maintain a minimal standard of living using average costs of necessities: food, rent, clothing, utilities, etc. In addition, SPM also accounts for the increase in overall well-being individuals experience as a result of public programs. Those include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), among others. It also accounts for the decrease in overall well-being an individual experiences through out-of-pocket medical costs, child care, child support, and other expenses.

Using the SPM, 49 million Americans, or 16 percent experienced poverty in 2010. The official poverty measure shows about 46.6 million or 15.2 percent in poverty. Among seniors, the difference is even more drastic: The official measure found 3.5 million seniors, or 9 percent in poverty in 2010; the SPM found 6.2 million or 15.9 percent in poverty.

Not all the results of the SPM are so grim, however. The SPM finds a lower rate of poverty among children than the official measure, 18.2 percent vs. 22.5 percent. As noted above, this is because the SPM accounts for the increase in income and living standard individuals experience when they benefit from public support programs.

Additionally, the SPM illustrates the effect public programs have on reducing poverty. For instance, SNAP keeps 5.2 million people, including 973,000 children, out of poverty. The EITC prevents about 6 million people, more than 1.1 million of whom are kids, from living in poverty.

On the other hand, medical out-of-pocket expenses, meaning everything from co-pays and deductibles to paying for medical services with cash or through debt, added about 10.1 million, or 3.3 percentage points, to the number of Americans in poverty.

Successful problem-solving requires that first the problem be understood. The Supplemental Poverty Measure is an important new tool for policymakers in alleviating poverty.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Food insecurity data symptom of larger affliction

Food insecurity, though a big problem, isn’t the problem. It is merely a symptom.

Andrew Cannon photo
Andrew Cannon

Here’s the good news from this week’s Department of Agriculture report on food security in America: Fewer American households reported serious disruptions in access to food in 2010 than in 2009.

Here’s the bad news: Overall, the number didn’t budge among Americans experiencing some level of food insecurity due to a lack of money. Nearly 49 million Americans — 16 million of whom are children — experienced hunger or the threat of hunger* in 2010 — a year in which, by official measures, the economy was improving.

Here’s where the bad news tells us: Food insecurity, though a big problem, isn’t the problem. It is merely a symptom.

In a lecture at the University of Iowa Wednesday night and in a recent New York Times commentary, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich diagnosed the real problem: stagnant income and wages.

It’s a problem IPP has recently noted, too. Our State of Working Iowa 2011 report found that median wages have stagnated and, adjusted for inflation, are lower now than they were a decade ago. And while the employment picture in 2010 improved, too many of those jobs pay lower wages than workers’ previous jobs — or are simply low-wage jobs, period.

The 2010 food security figures show that combating this particular symptom of stagnating incomes and wages — and others like it — requires different policy strategies. To name just a few: Increasing the wages and incomes of the middle- and working-class will require boosting the minimum wage, enforcing labor laws already on the books and making it easier for workers to unionize and enter collective bargaining contracts with employers, and encouraging employers to pay living wages.

Now, how about some more good news?

The data from recent years also suggests that stimulus measures in the 2009 Recovery Act worked as intended. Food insecurity elevated as the recession worsened in 2008; despite upward-creeping unemployment in early 2009, however, food insecurity held steady. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, was boosted by the Recovery Act, increasing benefits and eligibility.

In other words, we can shape the economy; policy can improve situations.

Effective policy, of course, requires a correct diagnosis. In this case, the correct diagnosis requires looking at things a bit more holistically — looking at wages and other economic indicators in conjunction with food security numbers.

* Each year, the USDA measures food security — the “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Participants in the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey — a nationally representative sample — are asked to respond to a series of statements and questions regarding the food situation in the household in the preceding 12 months. Household respondents responding negatively to several questions are classified as having “low food security;” those with negative responses to several questions and indicating disruptions in eating patterns due to a lack of resources are classified as having “very low food security.”

In the three years immediately following the onset of the recession (December 2007), the food insecurity rate among households has held steady at about 14.5 percent. In 2010, that meant 48.8 million individuals – 16 million of whom are children. This is a significant (both statistically and numerically) increase from the pre-recession years, when only about 36 million individuals, or 11 percent of households, experienced food insecurity.

Sample sizes are too small to provide one-year estimates for states; however, USDA does provide three-year averages. In Iowa, an average of 12.1 percent of households experienced food insecurity over the 2008-10 period, more than a third of whom experienced very low food security.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

But what have you done for me lately?

An astounding number of people have no idea what their government does for them — even as they benefit from government programs.

Source: Suzanne Mettler, "Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era," via Sara Robinson, Campaign for America's Future

This NYTimes blog post is interesting enough, but what really caught my attention was a table from a recent academic political science paper that has made its way from liberal bloggers to a former Reagan economic advisor.

An astounding number of people have no idea what their government does for them, even as they benefit from government programs.

 

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Robbing the hungry tomorrow to help the sick today?

Deficit demagogues make points in Congress, but miss the point about good recovery policy.

Andrew Cannon, research associate
Andrew Cannon

Should we rob the hungry tomorrow to help the sick today?

Economic recovery efforts should be aiding both — and other vulnerable populations — and neither at the expense of the other.

Congress is showing renewed interest in passing an extension of the temporary increase in the federal government’s share of Medicaid financing.

The proposed extension, however, could come at a steep price. To offset the cost of extending the Medicaid increase, Congress is looking at reducing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) by $6.7 billion.

Deficit demagogues may be making points in Congress, but they miss the point about good recovery policy.

It’s no secret that the federal budget deficit has grown over the past decade. But the long-term deficit is primarily due to a few select causes: the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 that heavily favored the highest earners, the deficit-financed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dip in tax revenues due to the recession.

Recession recovery efforts, such as the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which included the original increase in federal Medicaid payments, add a negligible amount to the long-term deficit, while providing immediate benefits to the most vulnerable Americans and stimulating the economy. An analysis of Recovery Act provisions by Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy and former economic adviser to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, estimated that every federal dollar invested in SNAP generates $1.74 of economic activity.

Congress will need to address deficit concerns. But doing so at the expense of the most vulnerable Americans doesn’t make sense fiscally, morally or economically.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Federal stimulus impacts on Iowa

Here is a look at some of the impacts of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act in Iowa:

FMAP (Medicaid percentage increase) FY2009-11 — $550.0 million

State Fiscal Stabilization (Flexible block grant) — $ 86.0 million

Education/ Child Care:

State Fiscal Stabilization fund (education) FY2009-10$386.4 million

Title 1 (supplemental support) — $65.3 million

IDEA (special education state grants)—$120.9 million

Child Care & Development Block Grant FY2009-10 — $18.1 million

Child Support FY2009-10 — $27.2 million

Unemployment Insurance (UI):

UI Benefit Increase ($25/week) — 212,422 recipients

UI Emergency Extension to 12/09 — 27,600 new beneficiaries

Employment Services FY09:

Youth Services — $5.2 million

Dislocated Workers — $6.3 million

Adult Activities — $1.6 million

Making Work Pay Credit — 1,110,000 taxpayers

Food Stamps FY2009-13:

Benefit Increase — $161 million and 279,000 recipients

Administration — $2.7 million

Child Tax Credit (tax year 2009 — lowers threshold to make credit available to families at $3,000 earnings):

Number helped lowering $8,500 threshold — 133,000

Number helped lowering $12,550 threshold — 156,000

Emergency Shelter Grant Pgm FY091 Add’l Funds — $16.8 million and 4,500 households