Hungry in America

Despite the strong economy that has been a boon for millions of Americans, many others remain locked in a poverty that includes hunger. All but ignored in the current political debate, this dark reality served as the background of a three-day conference held in Washington, D.C., in late February. Called "Fighting Hunger and Poverty in the New Millennium," the conferencesponsored by the annual Food Research and Action Center and joined this year as co-sponsors by America’s Second Harvest and the National Child and Adult Care Food Program Forumbrought together anti-hunger advocates from around the country.

A term that occurred repeatedly during the three-day meeting (Feb. 27-29) was "food security." Although definitions vary, the term implies access to adequate supplies of nutritional food acquired without recourse to emergency resources like pantries and soup kitchens. In fact, however, the welfare reform law of 1996 that sent many Americans into low-paying jobs has indirectly spurred a nationwide increase in the use of these and other kinds of emergency resources. As a result, instead of food security, the past few years have seen an increase in its opposite: food insecurity. It is estimated that 31 million people in the United States experience either food insecurity or actual hunger.


Speakers attributed part of the rise in food insecurity to the decline in the use of food stamps, a subject that was the focus of several of the conference’s workshops. Although it is recognized as one of the most important helps for the transition from welfare to work, food stamp use has declined by 27 percent over the past three and a half years. The welfare reform law made most legal immigrants and many jobless, childless adults automatically ineligible to receive food stampscircumstances that account for a significant part of the decline. But other reasons for the drop in participation have to do with various barriers. One reason is that people leaving welfare to enter the workforce are often not told that they may still be eligible for stamps (and for Medicaid, another important benefit for low-income people). At times the problem is technical; computers are not always equipped to distinguish among cash assistance benefits, food stamps and Medicaid. As a result, when cash benefits are canceled, the other two may also be canceledeven while a low-income family remains eligible.

But the barriers can also stem from ignorance or recalcitrance on the part of food stamp offices. A panelist at a workshop on food stamp accessJon Janowski of the Milwaukee Hunger Task Forcespoke of steps he took to find out for himself why the decline in participation had been so precipitous in his area of Wisconsin. He accompanied potential applicants to local offices, where, to his dismay, he found that they were being told that they could not apply the same day, but would have to return. In some cases, he said, this meant coming back three or four timesrequirements that were in violation of federal guidelines. The support of Congressman Tom Barrett prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which in turn led to an improvement in the intake procedures at some (though not all) of the offices. Mr. Janowski is now planning an outreach campaign to alert potential participants about the benefits of the food stamp program and how to apply. The lack of outreach, in Milwaukee and elsewhere, has in itself acted as an indirect barrier.

Other barriers discussed during the course of the conference include the food stamp application forms themselves. Their sheer length and complexityOhio’s form, for instance, is over 30 pagesact as a deterrent, especially for people with limited formal education. Then there is the issue of the hours when food stamp offices are open, usually the traditional 9 to 5. Because of these fixed hours, low-income workers must take time off from their jobs in order to apply. Even when a worker begins receiving food stamps, requirements for re-certificationwhich in some states can be mandated every three monthsand the repeated need to ask employers for salary verification, produce still further strain for both worker and employer. As one presenter at another workshopLarry Goolsby, of the American Public Human Services Associationput it, such time-consuming requirements do not "fit in with the reality of the worker’s schedule." Not surprisingly, some potential recipients simply give up rather than deal with the loss of their working hours and the complexity of the process itself.

A particularly gratuitous and quite deliberate barrier stems from a provision of the 1996 welfare law pertaining to those with felony drug convictions. Over 300,000 individuals are convicted yearly of drug felonies in state and federal courts. These, according to a report by FRAC, are disproportionately "low income and minorities." All are barred for their lifetimes from receiving food stamps. The same report notes that the impact of the ban will increase substantially as more and more people become affected by it with the passage of time. The restriction amounts to a double punishment for people who, after serving their sentences, may well need the kind of extra help that food stamps can provide in making the transition from cell to community. The punishment extends to the individual’s families too, because when one member of a household is disqualified, benefit levels for the rest are proportionately reduced, since the disqualified person’s income counts against that of the whole household. States are allowed to opt out of the ban, but only through passage of special legislationunlikely in many states, given the current climate of ever-greater severity for offenders.

Food stamps are an entitlement program, fully funded by the federal government; all those who establish their eligibility can therefore benefit. This is not true of WIC, another important nutrition program, one that is aimed at pregnant, postpartum women and their children up to age 5. A report by the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded that by preventing low birth weight and associated health problems, WIC greatly reduces later expenses related to hospital care, medical treatment, special education and Supplemental Security Income payments for disabled children. In other words, it represents massive long-term savings. Nevertheless, it was pointed out at the conference that funding is in place for only 7.5 million out of possibly 10 million eligible people. This shortfall serves as a striking example of the English proverb, "penny wise and pound foolish," when it comes to the lives of children at risk.

Much of the conference focused, in fact, on children and the harm done to them through poverty-related hunger and food insecurity. In her keynote addresses, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, used the image of what she called America’s "fifth child," alluding to the fact that one in five children grow up in poverty. She asked her listeners to imagine a family with five children, four of whom receive adequate care. The fifth, in contrast, is malnourished, receives substandard education and little health care, and as an adult is twice as likely to be poor as the other four. Ms. Edelman went on to point out that other industrialized countries with fewer resources than ours provide a far better safety net for children than we do and have substantially lower rates of child poverty. She also took state legislatures to task for "sitting on child health and hunger money" at a time of rapidly mounting surpluses from an accumulation of federal funds unused for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that has replaced the pre-welfare law’s Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

An associate of Ms. Edelman’s who spoke earlier at the conferenceArloc Sherman, a researcher at the Children’s Defense Fundidentified politics as the basic cause of child hunger. But he also said that, given the present state of the economy, child poverty in the United States is a "solvable" problem. Several bills pending in Congress could go a considerable way toward a solution. Ms. Edelman made special reference to one of them, the Hunger Relief Act of 1999, which would restore food stamp eligibility for several hundred thousand needy legal immigrants. The same act would also make it more possible for low-income working people to own a reliable car without its value counting against the food stamp resource limita matter of particular importance for poor families in rural areas with little or no public transportation. (America’s fifth child often lives in a rural area.) At present, ownership of a vehicle valued at more than $4,650 disqualifies an individual from receiving food stamps. The food stamp vehicle allowance has been raised by only $150 since 1977.

Another bill, the Food Stamp Outreach and Research for Kids Act (FORK) of 1999, would provide more funds for outreach efforts and monitor the administration of locally based offices. The situation in Milwaukee noted above is a good example of why such monitoring is needed. In his projected FY 2001 budget, President Clinton has himself called for additional funding of $10 million for outreach effortsfar too little when one realizes that, according to the Department of Agriculture, more than a third of those eligible for food stamps are not receiving them. But at least this aspect of the president’s budget proposal acknowledges the outreach problem. He also calls for an increase in WIC funding, but again, far too little to reach all those eligible. Even with this proposed increase, over two million low-income women and their children under five would be left unserved. In one state, at leastMassachusettsall eligible women are able to take advantage of the program because of supplemental funding provided by the state. The director of Project Bread in Boston said in a workshop on WIC that, thanks to Massachusetts’ Child Relief Hunger Act, there has become a de facto entitlement, rather than the discretionary program it is on the federal level. There was little doubt that the anti-hunger advocates at the conference would like to see WIC become a federal entitlement program like food stamps, not just a discretionary program.

But changes like these require bipartisan political will, which so far is lacking among legislators. Ellen Taylor, who participated in the conference on behalf of a new coalition called Invest in America, noted that the national debate on the surplus has tended to focus on tax cuts and reducing the national debt. With the government’s surplus now in the trillions, more of it, she said, should go into domestic spending for programs that help poor Americans. Last December the U.S. mayors’ annual Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness found that requests for emergency food assistance jumped by 85 percent in the 26 cities surveyed. The presenters at the conference in Washington explored a number of the causes for this increase in food insecurity and hunger. But the outlook is that without a stronger and more generous approach, these causes may remain for a long time to come, depriving too many Americans of a place at the table.

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