The Center's work on 'Food Assistance' Issues

The Center designs and promotes polices to make the Food Stamp Program more adequate to help recipients afford an adequate diet, more accessible to eligible families and individuals, and easier for states to administer. We also help states design their own food stamp programs for persons ineligible for the federal program. Our work on the WIC program includes ensuring that sufficient federal funds are provided to serve all eligible applicants and on helping states contain WIC costs. Our work on child nutrition programs focuses on helping states and school districts implement recent changes in how they determine a child’s eligibility for free or reduced-priced school meals.

Mapping Schools’ Adoption of Community Eligibility

February 27, 2015 at 9:00 am

These interactive maps show the extent to which eligible school districts and schools in each state have adopted community eligibility, which allows qualifying high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.  Along with our new report, searchable database, and guide to promoting community eligibility, they’re designed to help parent organizations, teachers, and other stakeholders in low-income communities identify which schools and school districts have taken up the option and which others could benefit from it the next school year.

The first map shows the share of eligible school districts adopting the provision; the second map shows the share of eligible schools adopting it; and the third map shows the share of highest-poverty schools adopting it.  When you scroll over a state, detailed data appear. When you click on a state, the bar chart below the map displays that state’s implementation data compared to national data.

More than 14,000 high-poverty schools serving more than 6.6 million children adopted community eligibility this year.  But many eligible schools in poor communities haven’t yet adopted it, which means low-income students are missing out.  These resources can help school districts consider whether to adopt community eligibility for the 2015-2016 school year.

Greenstein Testifies on SNAP

February 25, 2015 at 4:44 pm

Testifying at a House Agriculture Committee hearing this morning, CBPP President Robert Greenstein discussed SNAP’s track record of eliminating severe hunger and malnutrition in the United States, as well as its growth in response to economic conditions and need.  His oral remarks are below; click here for his written testimony.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for inviting me and for the opportunity to be here today. I’ve been working on this program for over 40 years, and had the privilege at one point in the late 1970s to serve as the Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service.

I think Doug [Douglas Besharov, professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, who also testified] and I agree that SNAP has played the central role in eliminating severe hunger and malnutrition in this country.  This led former Senator Bob Dole to call it the nation’s most important social program advance since Social Security.

And over the years, SNAP has taken advantage of modern technology and business practice to become more efficient and accurate.  Its error rate is now at an all-time low.  Fewer than 1 percent of benefits are issued to ineligible households.

SNAP’s benefits are relatively modest.  They average about $1.40 per person per meal.

Benefits are also highly targeted by need.  92 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with monthly incomes below the poverty line, 57 percent to families below half the poverty line.

SNAP can help families bridge temporary hardship until they get back on their feet.  Between 2008 and 2012, about half of all new entrants to SNAP participated for one year or less and then left the program.

SNAP also appears to have important long-term positive effects on children.  A recent study [based on data from the rollout of SNAP in the late 1960s and early 1970s] found that children who had received SNAP had much higher high school graduation rates and better health — including less obesity — in adulthood than comparable low-income children who didn’t have SNAP.  And women who’d had access to SNAP in childhood had higher earnings and lower rates of welfare receipt in adulthood.

Now, SNAP participation and costs have grown in recent years.  Both CBO [the Congressional Budget Office] and other analysts have found the biggest reason by far is the economy.  The next most important reason has been an increase in the share of eligible families — especially low-income working families — who participate.

In 2002, only 43 percent of eligible low-income working families participated.  In 2012, 72 percent did.

Congress and the Bush and Clinton Administrations concluded that some aspects of SNAP were making it unnecessarily hard for working-poor families to enroll.  They concluded that if families leaving welfare for low-paid work lost their SNAP benefits at the same time, and had difficulty feeding their families, that would be contrary to welfare-reform goals.  Most of the policy changes, for example, that Doug lists in his testimony and were made since 2000 were made to better serve low-income working families.

As this chart indicates, SNAP has made major progress here — the share of SNAP families who are on welfare has plummeted; the share who work has increased pretty dramatically.

This brings me to the biggest cause of SNAP’s recent growth — the deep problems in the economy, from which we’re only starting now to make substantial progress.  Some people look at the growth in SNAP caseloads and wonder if they’ll ever come down.

But the best assessment is that as the recovery finally reaches ordinary families, caseloads and costs will drop significantly.

That is CBO’s assessment.  Caseloads have dropped by about 1.5 million people since the end of 2012 and now stand at about 46 million; CBO projects they will drop to below 33 million over the coming decade.

And, when budget analysts, whether they are conservative or liberal, ask if federal programs are growing in ways that add to the nation’s fiscal challenges, they ask if program costs are rising as a share of the economy — growing as a share of GDP.  CBO’s projection for SNAP is that its costs will decline as a share of the economy as the economic recovery continues, and by 2020, be all of the way back to their 1995 level, as a share of GDP.

Finally, does SNAP discourage people from working?  The conclusion of a team of leading researchers who examined all research in the field is that SNAP does not pose significant work disincentives and its effect on the amount that people work is small.

Indeed, Census data show that of people who worked before enrolling in SNAP, 96 percent then worked in the year after beginning to get SNAP benefits, which suggests turning to SNAP does not lead people to cease working.

SNAP’s work requirements are stronger than is often realized.  SNAP has the single toughest work requirement of any federal program — people aged 18-50 who are not raising children are limited to three months of SNAP out of every three years, unless they’re working at least half time.  Job search does not count; if you can’t find a job, you’re out after three months.  This requirement was suspended in much of the country when the economy was weak, but it’s now coming back.  At least 1 million such people will be removed from the program between now and the end of 2016.

Now, that doesn’t mean that SNAP can’t do better in helping people gain jobs, and the recent Farm Bill establishes demonstration projects to learn how to do that more effectively.

In conclusion, SNAP is a lifeline for millions of people.  The program can be improved.  But it’s worth noting that when the Simpson-Bowles commission and the Domenici-Rivlin deficit reduction task force called for substantial budget cuts, they both excluded cuts in SNAP, given its strong track record in improving access to food — and reducing poverty and hardship — for millions of our less-fortunate fellow Americans.

Thank you.

Could Your School District Streamline Its Breakfast and Lunch Programs?

February 25, 2015 at 4:14 pm

Community eligibility supports Congress’ longstanding goal of reducing paperwork for high-poverty schools by enabling them to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students without collecting and processing individual meal applications.  In its first year of nationwide implementation, more than 14,000 high-poverty schools serving more than 6.6 million children have adopted the option.  Our new report and searchable database help parent organizations, teachers, and other stakeholders in low-income communities identify which school districts have adopted community eligibility and which others could benefit from it in the next school year.

We’ve measured the share of eligible school districts that implemented community eligibility in at least one school, the share of eligible schools that adopted it, and the share of the highest-poverty schools (where community eligibility is most feasible financially for districts because their federal meal reimbursements are the largest) that adopted it.

Although community eligibility was widely implemented this year, participation among eligible schools varied widely by state (see map).  Many more high-poverty schools could benefit from streamlining their meal programs and freeing up resources for educational priorities.  More importantly, millions more low-income children would be better able to learn if they received breakfast and lunch without hassle or stigma.  This spring, school districts will have another opportunity to examine if community eligibility could benefit their schools and students.

Spreading the Word About How to Make Schools Hunger-Free

February 23, 2015 at 1:09 pm

This spring, high-poverty schools that haven’t yet adopted the Community Eligibility Provision — which allows them to serve breakfast and lunch free to all students — will have a new opportunity to elect it for next year.  Our new guide explains how key stakeholders like parent organizations, teachers, and others can promote the option among educators and school nutrition administrators.  Schools that learn about the benefits of community eligibility will be hard-pressed to pass up the opportunity to simplify their programs and better prepare their students to learn.

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods face special challenges.  Their students often lack many of life’s basics, including nutritious meals.  By eliminating the need for these schools to collect and process individual meal applications, community eligibility ensures that unnecessary paperwork doesn’t get in the way of giving needy children two nutritious meals every school day.  Educators are among the option’s biggest proponents (see here and here) because they know that hungry children struggle to learn.

More than 6.6 million children in more than 14,000 schools benefit from community eligibility, which became available nationwide this school year.  But about half of eligible schools don’t use it, which means thousands of schools in poor communities and millions of low-income students are missing out.

States must publish by May 1 a list of districts and schools eligible to adopt community eligibility, but most schools and districts will know before then whether they’ll likely be eligible.  School districts have until June 30 to decide whether to implement it in some or all eligible schools.  Over the next few months, community leaders, child advocates, and policymakers can help spread the word about this powerful tool for high-poverty schools to ensure that their students are well fed and ready to learn.

WIC Works, Without Congress’ Meddling

February 11, 2015 at 9:51 am

A central tenet of the WIC program is that the foods it provides to millions of low-income mothers should reflect a rigorous, science-based review of nutritionally important foods that participants’ diets tend to lack.

In December, Congress took the unprecedented and irresponsible step of overriding that proven approach.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) was reviewing whether to add white potatoes — which WIC didn’t offer because low-income women and young children already eat lots of them — to the foods that WIC participants can buy with their fruit and vegetable vouchers.  But rather than wait for the results, Congress (under heavy pressure from potato industry lobbyists) dictated that WIC offer white potatoes.

Congress also directed WIC to abide by IOM’s science-based recommendation once the IOM finished its work.  The IOM has now concluded, based on the latest dietary recommendations and data, that there’s no longer a reason to exclude white potatoes.  Potato consumption hasn’t waned, it noted; Americans still eat more white potatoes than any other vegetable.  But the federal government’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans raised the recommended consumption of starchy vegetables, and Americans generally don’t meet the new recommendation, though they come closer than for any other type of vegetable.

The Agriculture Department will undoubtedly follow this science-based recommendation and adopt other IOM recommendations when the IOM completes its comprehensive review of all WIC foods.  That’s as it should be.

While Congress’ mandate in this case turned out to be consistent with the IOM recommendation, lobbying pressure could prompt future congressional directives that conflict with science-based recommendations.  The lesson here is that we can trust the science-based process for selecting WIC foods to respond to changes in dietary patterns or nutrition recommendations.  Let’s hope Congress learned this lesson and won’t try to dictate WIC foods in the future.