Friday, October 31, 2014

Hunger Games

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Proposed federal cutscould have devastating effects on the one in six Arizonans who use food stamps. But can we afford to feed millions of people?

You are standing at the check-out counter in WalMart, watching the cashier ring up the items that comprise your meticulously meted-out meal plan for the next 14 days. There aren’t as many fruits and vegetables as you’d like, but grapes, which the girls love, are $2.79 a pound today. That jumbo box of Ramen costs the same amount, and it’ll be a lifesaver when your food stamps run out around the 20th of the month.
“Give plasma,” you jot down on a piece of paper, remembering that without trading blood for gas money, you won’t be able to get to and from work this week. On the same paper, you’ve also noted the page numbers in various newspapers where several food items are advertised. You point these out to the cashier and wait while she price-matches each one and scans your stack of coupons. Saving money on food is so time-consuming it’s practically a part-time job.

Then you pull out your Electronic Benefits Transfer card and feel the same hot surge of shame you felt five years ago when you first applied for food stamps. You are not one of those people. You’ve always worked hard. You have an almost-full-time, minimum wage job. You’ve completed the prerequisites for nursing school and would be there now if not for a two-year waiting list. Your husband would be employed if he hadn’t taken that better job, only to be laid off two months later due to budget cuts. But he’s completed his training to be a police officer and will hopefully get a job soon. You’re trying to better your family’s position. You won’t always be on food stamps.
To help the public temporarily feel the weight of burdens borne by our nation’s poor, advocacy groups like the Arizona Community Action Association occasionally invite people to take part in a poverty simulation “game.” Participants play the roles of low-income people tackling situations taken from true stories and are asked, “What would you do?”

The above scenario was not part of the simulation, but it could have been. It’s based on the life of a Valley woman who wished to remain anonymous. We’ll call her Ashley. Ashley is one of 1,112,000 Arizonans – one in six people – on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. Since the recession, the number of people on SNAP statewide has swollen steadily. Still, 19 percent of Arizonans suffer from “food insecurity,” the chronically uneasy state of not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

In fact, the entire system of food assistance is wobbling: The U.S. House Agriculture Committee has recommended slashing $34 billion from SNAP over the next decade. That could cut off 1.8 million Americans from food stamps and 280,000 children from free school lunches, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Advocates are waiting to see which version of the Farm Bill – each of which would impact SNAP differently – Congress will pass before the September deadline, or if they’ll pass it at all.

Stirred into this social issue stew are multiple accusations of food stamp fraud, plus controversy over drug testing for SNAP participants and whether food stamps should be used to purchase only healthy foods. But the real tug-of-war is between two questions: ‘How can we afford to have 46 million Americans on food stamps?’ and ‘How can we afford not to?’

About every five years, Congress passes a new Farm Bill, or at least attempts to. The last three such bills required extensions, owing to controversy over this legislation that fundamentally affects the way Americans eat. The largest slice of the Farm Bill pie is nutrition assistance, namely SNAP, which cost the country $78 billion in 2011. In the past, SNAP spending enjoyed near universal support in Congress, and that’s still largely true. But this year, facing a massive deficit and loathe to shave military spending, Congress is aiming its scalpel at food programs.

Simultaneously, the government is outlining a budget plan for 2012-2013 that could affect SNAP. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan, for example, proposes $133.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade. “So as advocates, we’re watching both of these, and we’re going a little hysterical,” says Arizona Association of Food Banks president Ginny Hildebrand. “There is a lot potentially at stake. In some of the versions we could see a dramatic change… in the number of people that could qualify, the amount they could receive per month, how the program is administered, how the program is held accountable, how the program is even funded.”

The Farm Bill could return SNAP benefits to pre-American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) levels,  which could reduce households’ food funds by around $685 a year. Another proposal would turn SNAP into a block grant for states, which would essentially convert food stamp funds from a constant, steady stream flowing directly to the poor from the federal government into a fixed amount sent from Washington, D.C. to states, which they could then dole out at their discretion until it ran dry. Hildebrand worries that if that approach were taken, the country would have 50 different varieties of food stamp administration (read: a massive migraine for the grocery industry), and states could potentially have free rein over how they used the money as long as it went toward nutrition. 

Block grants could also impact hunger during times of natural catastrophes, Hildebrand notes. “The SNAP program has been critically important in times of disaster… If a state was impacted significantly like Louisiana and Mississippi was during Katrina, if they expended all of their block grant trying to help those [people] and then they didn’t have any more benefits, they would have to literally wait for an act of Congress to add additional appropriation to meet their needs.”

Cuts in the Farm Bill could also affect non-SNAP nutrition programs such as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides a monthly box of groceries for seniors, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), aka the “Cheese Program,” which donates surplus agricultural products to food banks that comprise 25 to 30 percent of their distribution. The latter program has already seen a 30 percent reduction in the last year because market prices are so high and food is selling well, Hildebrand says. “They don’t have surplus, so [food banks] don’t have surplus. So what we’re trying to figure out is how we make up that 30 percent drop in federal commodities, and our food banks are struggling to do that. That’s a big problem.”

Republican Congressman Michael Conaway, chair of the House Agriculture General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee, says the $34 billion in cuts amounts to only a 4 percent reduction in SNAP spending and would mostly affect dubiously eligible participants. After voting to support the cuts, he recently announced on the Diane Rehm Show, “The bulk of the reductions we’re talking about basically tell folks if you qualify on your own, based on your income levels and family sizes for food stamps or SNAP, you get it. But if you don’t qualify for it because you make too much money but you’re in the program because of some categorical qualification through LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) or others, that you don’t get it… So the cuts… would not force anybody who actually qualifies under income levels and family size levels for food stamps off the program. It would simply mean that only those folks who do qualify would be there.”

However, a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study finds that the budget cuts would “reduce or eliminate benefits for all SNAP households, including the poorest… Some 2 million individuals, disproportionately working families and seniors, would lose SNAP entirely. The remaining 44 million individuals who receive SNAP would see their benefits cut. For example, in September 2012, every household of four would see its benefits cut by $57 a month; households of three would lose $31 a month.”

“I think it seems that because there are so many more people on SNAP,” Hildebrand says, “some elected officials may be overreacting to that number, saying, ‘Oh my goodness, look at these huge payments we’re having to put out. We’ve got to reduce that. That’s draining the federal treasury inappropriately.’” Actually, she says, spending money on SNAP is smart economics. According to Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy, every $1 the federal government invests in SNAP generates $1.73 in economic activity in a community. Zandi named temporary increases in SNAP benefits the No. 1 way to boost economic growth and jobs out of 22 tax and spending options examined.

More important than economics, Hildebrand says, are moral considerations.

What would happen to you if food stamps were cut? “Oh my gosh, that would make me cry,” Ashley says, suddenly tearing up. “I don’t even know.” 

“I hear a lot of people talk who aren’t on [SNAP saying] ‘Oh, we’re having to pay tax money for all these people on welfare who don’t need it,’” she says. “I think there are a lot of people on it that don’t need it, that are cheating the system. But when you need it and it’s there and you’re doing your job and you’re trying to better your family, like I said, I don’t know what I would do without it. It’s embarrassing, but other times, you don’t care because you need it that badly that that’s what you have to do. I don’t think you really know the necessity until you’re on it.”

In Arizona today, more people understand that necessity, including many who don’t fit the stereotype of food stamp recipient. Since the recession, Hildebrand says, “We’ve seen more people who are in long-term unemployment, more people who never thought they would be in this situation, more people who say, ‘Two years ago I was volunteering and donating to this charity.’ There’s a difference in the demographic.”

With this influx of newcomers to the food stamp system comes accusations of fraud and stories of Paradise Valley ladies pulling EBT cards out of their Coach purses to buy steak at AJs. But Hildebrand stresses that nationally, the fraud level of SNAP is less than 1 percent and mostly consists of administrative errors and small vendors claiming more benefits than they take in.

The way Ashley describes it, the month-long process, plus biannual renewals, necessary to qualify for food stamps would seem to weed out cheaters. Applicants must present numerous documents including utility bills, pay stubs and letters from friends, plus attend multiple interviews. Still, Ashley says she sees ample evidence of food stamp fraud and misuse. “You hear people talking about how they cheat the system all the time, and they’ll share their secrets with other people sitting next to them. And it’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys are a bunch of liars.’ It makes me so angry. At work, there was a girl who was selling her food stamps to other people just to get the money. She was probably 23 or 24 and she had five kids, and she was getting over $1,000 a month and she was in the hallways at work selling her food stamps to other people. So of course I reported her.”

What really upsets Ashley is seeing people on drugs who get food stamps: “Why should they be getting help when they’re out there doing drugs? I fully, fully believe you should be getting drug tested if you’re on food stamps, because there would be more for the people who actually need it.”

She hits on another debate stirring up the food stamps issue. Currently, Arizona requires testing only for food stamp recipients reasonably suspected of drug use. But this year, 23 states considered following in Florida’s footsteps by requiring all food aid recipients to be drug tested. Naysayers contend such laws would unfairly stereotype and target the poor and lay the foundations for a slippery slope that could lead to other recipients of government funding – say, veterans and college students – being forced to give urine samples in exchange for support.

It’s part of a larger debate over how much control the government should have over SNAP, from who qualifies to which items go into their grocery carts. Studies have shown, for example, that the rate of obesity is higher among women who participate in the SNAP program. That’s not surprising given that data also suggest SNAP recipients consume more calories from solid fats and added sugars, drink more soda, and eat fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains than non-SNAP households. Through SNAP, the USDA subsidizes the purchase of about $4 billion worth of sweetened beverages annually.  

Many health advocates promote programs to shift SNAP participants toward healthy eating. “I’d like to see SNAP hard-wire better nutrition into the program by beginning to include nutritious food inventory criteria for SNAP vendors,” Arizona Department of Health Services director Will Humble has said. “Requiring SNAP vendors to meet nutritious food criteria will also help bring us closer to realizing our vision to be recognized as the leader in obesity prevention in Arizona.”

Arizona permits food stamp usage at farmers’ markets, but some states offer double food stamp credit at farmers’ markets. Last year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed barring that city’s food stamp users from buying soda and sugar-laden drinks, but the USDA rejected the plan. Still, some nutrition assistance programs already prevent the purchase of unhealthy foods. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, in which Ashley participates, supports mothers and children under the age of 5 but excludes purchase of white bread, high fat or chocolate milk, and tortilla chips, for example.

“There are strong feelings that my tax dollar should not be used by someone who is eligible for SNAP to purchase food that is less than healthy,” Hildebrand says. “On the other hand, where do you stop?... And then how do you monitor that? That adds a whole other administrative cost onto the SNAP program, such as who’s gonna pay for the electronic systems for every grocery store, convenience store, any store that accepts SNAP? Who’s gonna pay for those kind of register scanners and the card that then has to be upgraded to be able to say, ‘No on this [item] and that [item], but these are OK’?... And what foods do we decide to stamp out? Under whose standards? The jury is still out.”

 But for a large portion of Arizonans, the problem is not too many calories but too few. According to a 2010 report from the Food Research and Action Center, 29 percent of Arizona households with children experienced food hardship, i.e. not having enough money to buy necessary food during the previous year. This gives Arizona the seventh worst food hardship rate for households with children in the country, tied with Louisiana, the state that appalled people nationwide when Hurricane Katrina exposed the conditions of its chronically poor.

Hunger-relief charity Feeding America recently released a study that found 19 percent of Arizonans, around 1,200,000 people, are food insecure. “So that 1,112,000 that are on SNAP are probably some of these people,” Hildebrand notes.

She tells of a family that knocked on her office door the day before. “It was the 17th of the month yesterday. Their SNAP benefits were already exhausted.” On average, SNAP benefits in Arizona last two-and-a-half to three weeks, she says, because they are calculated at the federal level to meet only 75 percent of a person’s food needs. If federal funding for SNAP were reduced, that could mean families running out of food stamps on, say, the 15th or the 11th of the month.

The family, she says, was at a loss. It was 4:30 p.m. and all the food pantries in the Valley were closed. “I could refer them to an emergency meal at a soup kitchen, but the fact of the matter was they were going to have to wait to the morning to get food. Fortunately it was Thursday and not Friday, because only about 22 percent of our pantries in Maricopa County are open on a Saturday.” Maricopa County has about 90 pantries, but they range in operation from once a month to five days a week. Since the recession, many local pantries have reduced their hours because they lack food or volunteers, at a time when even more people need their services.

Hildebrand tried to help the family navigate the complicated nutrition assistance system. “Do you have children under the age of 5?” she asked them. “Do you have WIC or CSFP? Are the children registered for school meals? Are they going for free breakfasts? Does your school have a summer food program? Is there a summer food program they can get to? Will they have transportation so they don’t have to walk to the food distribution center in the Phoenix heat?” So many considerations, just to fulfill the most basic need in life: to eat.

The above is a real scenario with a real family, but let’s pretend it’s a poverty simulation “game.” Your food stamps have run out, the pantries are closed, you’re hungry and you need to feed your kids.  What do you do?

For more information on how you can volunteer or donate to your local food bank or pantry, visit azfoodbanks.org.

 

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