Posts Tagged ‘Hardship in America Series’

Hardship in America, Part 4: SNAP Helping Millions Afford an Adequate Diet

November 23, 2011 at 1:38 pm

As many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving by sharing an elaborate meal with friends and family, it’s important to remember that many other Americans lack the resources to meet their basic food needs.  Nearly 46 million individuals — one in seven Americans — get help affording a nutritionally adequate diet through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called the Food Stamp Program.

The Agriculture Department provides detailed data on SNAP participants both on a national basis and in individual states and congressional districts.  These figures show:

  • The overwhelming majority of SNAP households are poor families with children, seniors, or people with disabilities.

    • Three-quarters of SNAP participants are in families with children.
    • Over one-quarter are in households that include senior citizens or people with disabilities.
    • Almost 60 percent of the SNAP families that include a working-age adult who is not disabled are working families; many others recently lost their jobs and rely on SNAP to feed their children while they look for work.
  • SNAP households have very low incomes. Some 85 percent of them have gross incomes below the poverty line.  (This year the poverty line is about $22,000 a year for a family of four and $11,000 for a single person living alone, such as an elderly widow.)  Two of every five SNAP households have incomes below half of the poverty line.

  • SNAP benefits are extremely modest. They average only about $1.44 per person per meal (this figure will drop to $1.30, in today’s dollars, when the temporary increase provided by the 2009 Recovery Act expires in November 2013).  The average monthly benefit that SNAP households receive is about $285.

These data tell a compelling story about the extraordinary need of millions of Americans.  Thankfully, SNAP is available to help them.

Hardship in America, Part 3: Homelessness Growing Among Families with Children

November 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm

The number of homeless families has been growing in recent years, but major programs that have proven effective at helping families find stable housing will serve fewer of them next year because of limited funding.

Since the recession began in late 2007, the number of homeless families with children living in temporary shelters has risen by 28 percent, to nearly 170,000 families in 2010, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  Roughly four times as many families are living “doubled-up” or in other unstable home situations, school enrollment data from the Department of Education data suggest.

Numerous studies have documented the harmful long-term impact of housing instability on children.  Compared to other kids, children whose families are homeless or living in unstable homes:

  • Perform less well in school, are more likely to repeat a grade, and are less likely to complete high school — and the effects worsen with cumulative moves.
  • Experience higher rates of mental health problems and developmental delays.
  • Will more likely have physical health problems such as asthma or ear infections.  (The Center for Housing Policy provides helpful summaries of the research here and here.)

Equally well-documented, housing assistance dramatically improves housing stability for low-income families that receive it.  A recent study of families with children eligible for welfare assistance, for example, concluded that housing vouchers reduced the incidence of homelessness among these families by 75 percent.  (Housing vouchers, which are federally funded, enable low-income households to rent modest housing in the private market at an affordable cost.)

Due to funding limitations, however, only about 1 in 4 eligible low-income families receives a housing voucher or other type of federal rental assistance.

Moreover, even fewer families will likely receive rental assistance in the future.  Congress provided $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention in the 2009 Recovery Act, which likely averted an even sharper increase in family homelessness in 2010 (see graph), yet most local housing agencies will exhaust these funds well before the end of next year.  Also, in HUD’s fiscal year 2012 budget, total funding for programs will fall by $3.7 billion (9 percent) below the 2011 level.  Hardest hit are public housing and programs that promote the production of affordable housing.  But even programs that fared relatively well in the budget, such as the Housing Choice Voucher program, will likely serve fewer families next year due to inadequate funding.

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Hardship in America, Part 2: Safety Net Withering for Poor Families with Children

November 22, 2011 at 2:15 pm

The Great Recession has exposed both the strengths and weaknesses of our nation’s safety net.  The Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and Medicaid have shown  that safety-net programs can, if designed properly, push back against increased hardship during a downturn by responding automatically to sharp and sudden increases in need.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance to low-income families with children who have nowhere else to turn for help.

TANF’s effectiveness as a safety net depends both on the extent to which very poor families are enrolled in it and on the level of benefits that they receive.  TANF has been performing inadequately in both areas for some time, but the situation has worsened during the downturn:

  • Few very needy families receive TANF benefits. In 1996, for every 100 poor families with children, 68 received cash assistance through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which TANF replaced.  In 2009, for every 100 such families in poverty, only 27 received cash assistance through TANF.  Between December 2007 and December 2009, state TANF caseloads increased by just 13 percent nationally, lagging far behind the increases in SNAP caseloads, the number of unemployed, and the number of people in families with children that live below the poverty line.
  • TANF benefit levels are low and falling. Cash assistance benefits have fallen by 20 percent or more in 34 states since 1996, after adjusting for inflation (see chart).  In the median state, a family of three receives just $428 per month.  The majority of states now provide TANF benefits that are below 30 percent of the poverty line.

Worse, six states and the District of Columbia have cut their TANF benefit levels since August 2010, our new report shows, reducing assistance for more than 700,000 low-income families that represent over one-third of all low-income families receiving such assistance nationwide.

TANF benefits thus are increasingly inadequate to help poor families meet basic needs, like housing. In every state, the monthly TANF benefit level for a family of three is less than the estimated cost of a modest two-bedroom apartment.

The much-touted 1996 bipartisan welfare reform deal, which created TANF, sought a balanced approach:  to require able-bodied recipients to work or prepare for work while maintaining a safety net for parents who were unable to work due to a short-term crisis, a work-limiting disability, or the lack of available jobs.  (Many of the families that receive assistance include a disabled household member and most have limited job skills, which makes finding a job in a weak economy that much harder.)  Unfortunately, the program’s safety-net aspect is getting weaker with every passing year.

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Hardship in America, Part 1: Majority of Poor Children Live in Households with Major Hardships

November 21, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Note:  With Thanksgiving right around the corner, the Center thought this was a good time to look at the latest figures on various indicators of hardship. This is the first in a series of posts on this subject that CBPP will do this week.

Poverty rates rose in 2010 under a variety of poverty measures, as the economic downturn continued and long-term unemployment hit record highs.  Lest anyone doubt that this is a serious problem requiring attention, new CBPP analysis finds that more than half (52 percent) of poor children last year lived in households that faced one or more of the following:

  • hunger (what the Agriculture Department now terms “very low food security”),
  • overcrowded living conditions (more than one person per room),
  • failure to pay rent or mortgage on time, or
  • failure to receive needed medical care.

Poor Children's Households Much More Likely to Experience HardshipThat’s three times the 17 percent rate for households with incomes at or above twice the poverty line, as the graph shows.  (Not all of these hardships affect the children; some affect other household members.)

Fortunately, government assistance can make a difference in poverty — and, it is fair to conclude, hardship.

Earlier this month, Census reported that while poverty rose significantly in 2010 under a new poverty measure (the Supplemental Poverty Measure) that takes both cash income and government assistance into account, government assistance kept poverty from being even higher.

Also, a CBPP analysis found that nearly twice as many people would count as poor in 2010 if one leaves out the income they received from assistance programs.  In particular, a handful of government initiatives enacted in 2009 and 2010 kept nearly 7 million people out of poverty in 2010.

Unfortunately, those initiatives are expiring, many states have cut programs that help low-income families, and some budget-cutters in Congress are targeting such programs for further cuts.

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