Facts on U.S. Hunger and How Federal Programs Such as SNAP (Food Stamps) Effectively Combat It

Joel Berg and  his associates at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger have put together this excellent fact sheet on hunger and federal assistance programs.   Published here by permission.    Original location here.

By the New York City Coalition Against Hunger

Keep these facts on hand for discussions with friends, family members, neighbors, congregants, and co-workers:

In 2010, 49 million Americans, Including more than 16 million children, lived in households that couldn’t afford enough food.1
That means that one in six Americans – and one in five of the country’s children–lived in homes that directly face, or lived at the brink of, hunger.

Hungry families may be your neighbors.
While many equate hunger with homelessness, the vast majority of hungry Americans aren’t homeless; they just earn too little money to afford all the food they need. Hungry families live in urban and rural areas – and increasingly even in the suburbs. Most hungry families are white.

Most hungry Americans are either low-wage workers, children, senior citizens, or people with disabilities.
USDA has found that, out of families with children suffering from food insecurity and hunger, 68 percent contained at least one adult working full-time, 10 percent had at least one adult working part-time, seven percent had an unemployed adult actively looking for work, and eight percent were headed by an adult with a disability. Only about one in fourteen households were headed by an able-bodied, unemployed adult not currently looking for work.2   The main problem is low wages and few jobs, not laziness.

Hungry Americans can also be overweight.
Because low-income families have more difficulty affording the most nutritious foods, and because low-income neighborhoods are often “food deserts” that lack healthy food options, hunger and obesity are often flip-sides of the same malnutrition coin. Some Americans falsely believe that some low-income people are obese because they shop poorly, fail to cook at home, or choose to eat too much fast food. But a recent study proved that the vast majority of low-income families cooked at home at least five nights a week, and desperately struggled to serve healthier food.3 Another new study also found that middle class people eat fast food more often than low-income people, which shouldn’t be surprising since SNAP (food stamp) benefits generally can’t be used to eat at restaurants, including fast food restaurants.4

One of the most effective ways to reduce U.S. hunger is to increase participation in federal nutrition assistance programs.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, the National School Lunch Program, the National School Breakfast Program, the National Summer Food Service Program, and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program all work quickly and effectively to get food to those who need it most.

History proves that federal nutrition assistance programs have worked spectacularly well.
As late as the 1960’s, teams of doctors were able to find pockets of Third World-style hunger and malnutrition in America, which generated significant media reaction and political attention. In response, Presidents and Congresses worked together in a bipartisan fashion to expand the Food Stamp Program and federal summer meals programs for children from relatively small pilot projects into the large-scale programs we know today, and also created the National School Breakfast Program, as well as the WIC Program that provides nutrition supplements to low-income pregnant woman and their small children. These expansions succeeded remarkably in achieving their main goal: ending starvation conditions in America. In 1979, when investigators returned to many of the same parts of the U.S. in which they had previously found high rates of hunger, they found dramatic reductions in hunger and malnutrition, concluding: “This change does not appear to be due to an overall improvement in living standards or to a decrease in joblessness in these areas…. The Food Stamp Program, the nutritional components of Head Start, school lunch and breakfast programs, and… WIC have made the difference.”5

SNAP prevents hunger for tens of millions of American families and boosts the economy.
SNAP provides vouchers–available electronically on cards similar to bank credit or debit cards – that enable low-income families to shop for the food they need at private grocery stores and markets. For families with children, an added benefit of SNAP enrollment is that the children are automatically eligible for free school breakfasts and lunches. Because SNAP creates U.S. jobs for those who grow, pick, process, manufacture, ship, warehouse, wholesale, and retail food, every dollar spent on the program generates $1.84 in U.S. economic activity.6 3

Most of the people who receive SNAP are children, seniors, working parents, and people with disabilities.
About half of all SNAP participants are children, and nearly 10 percent are seniors. Most the rest are working parents and people with disabilities. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for benefits, and even many legal immigrants, including many with full-time jobs, are also ineligible.

SNAP encourages and enables work.
Despite the high unemployment rate in 2010, four in ten SNAP households earned some income from jobs.7 Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have declared that SNAP is not welfare. In fact, because SNAP benefits allow families to support themselves while in low-wage jobs, they help people get off – and keep off – the cash welfare rolls.

Because a wide variety of Americans sometimes need help when they face tough times, nearly half of all American children will receive assistance from SNAP during their lifetimes. 8
While SNAP recipients are often falsely stereotyped as part of a permanent underclass, the truth is many recipients fluctuate between the lower middle-class and poverty, facing especially tough stretches when they lose jobs, suffer a health crisis, face divorce, or suffer pay cuts.

SNAP has worked exactly as it was designed, expanding significantly to meet the growing need during hard economic times.
Because wages were low and unemployment was increasing during the Presidency of George W. Bush, 14.7 million people were added to the SNAP rolls. In response to the continuing recession, another 14.2 million people were added to the rolls under the Presidency of Barack Obama, as of October 2011.9 One in seven Americans, including many working people formerly in the middle-class, received benefits. The program worked exactly as intended, expanding to meet increasing need, just as it previously shrunk in response to the economic prosperity of the late 1990’s. The federal government has projected declining program participation in 2013 as the economy continues to recover.10

Despite SNAP’s recent growth, the percentage of overall government benefit dollars going to low-income families has actually declined over the last few decades.
This drop is because other benefits that help low-income Americans (such as those for housing) have declined, while benefits for middle-class and wealthy Americans have increased. The share of federal benefit dollars flowing to the lowest-income fifth of Americans has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007.11

SNAP benefits that are illegally sold constitute only about one percent of all SNAP benefit dollars, proving that there is less fraud in SNAP than in most big businesses, nonprofit groups, or defense contracts.
Due to increased oversight and improvements to program management by USDA, the illegal trafficking of benefits has fallen significantly over the last two decades, from about four cents on the dollar in 1993 to about one cent in 2006-08.12

SNAP enables people to eat more healthfully.
While many people falsely assume that SNAP recipients purchase more junk food than other Americans, there is no evidence that this is the case. In fact, projects that enable people to use SNAP benefits to obtain fresh produce at farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are increasingly popular among low-income families. Experience proves that low-income families rush to obtain and prepare healthier food if it is affordable, physically available, and convenient to use, especially when they can use SNAP to make purchases.

Despite increasing SNAP participation, many eligible for benefits still don’t get the benefits, and eligible working families have the lowest participation rates.
In 2009, more than a quarter of eligible households, and more than four in ten eligible working households, did not receive the SNAP benefits to which they were entitled. There many reasons that eligible people do not apply for, or ultimately enroll in – the program, including: misconceptions about whether they can get SNAP and how much in benefits they can obtain; lack of time to travel to a government office, wait in line, participate in an interview that often feels like an interrogation, and submit a large amount of documents; and stigma, fear, and embarrassment. Fortunately, there are concrete ways for volunteers to help potentially eligible people overcome all these barriers and to help them more easily obtain the nutrition assistance their families so desperately need.

Despite under-participation in SNAP, the amount of food the program provides to low-income families dwarfs the amount of food given by charities.
SNAP provides at least 15 times as much food as every food bank, soup kitchen, and food pantry combined, according to an analysis by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Thus, dramatically increasing donations to charities would do far less to feed hungry Americans than would increasing SNAP participation by even a little. 5

SNAP is even more cost-effective than many emergency feeding charities.
While it is often a great burden to enroll in SNAP, once someone receives the benefits, it is usually relatively easy to use them. The government merely transfers the money electronically to EBT card and then, at virtually no additional cost to the government other than the benefits themselves, recipients are able to use the money solely for food. That’s why the vast majority of taxpayer money that goes to SNAP pays for food, not to administering the program. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger calculated that, before the current recession, only about 15 percent of SNAP’s spending went to administrative overhead. Since then, even though the spending on benefits has soared, the spending on caseworkers to administer the program has remained relatively flat, so the amount spent on managing the program is now less than 10 percent, far lower than at many charities.

Child nutrition programs – such as school breakfast and summer meals– are also under-utilized.
Less than half of low-income children who receive school lunches receive school breakfasts.13 And only one in seven of low-income children who receive school lunches receive government-funded summer meals.14 Fortunately, volunteers can participate in outreach projects that can significantly increase participation in these programs.

1. Household Food Security in the United States, 2010, Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Mark Nord. Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson, USDA Economic Research Report No. 125, September 2011, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR125/ERR125.pdf
2. “Food Insecurity in Households with Children: Prevalence, Severity, and Household Characteristics,” Mark Nord, USDA Economic Research Service Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-56) 49 pp, September 2009 http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib56/eib56.pdf
3. “Study: Low-Income Families Cook Dinner at Home Five Nights a Week, Aspire to Eat Healthy.” Share Our Strength and ConAgra Food Foundation release on PR Newswire, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/studylow- income-families-cook-dinner-at-home-five-nights-a-week-aspire-to-eat-healthy-138400794.html, accessed February 20, 2012.
4. “Fast Food: Middle Class Indulges More Often Than Poor People Do,” Huffington Post, November 8, 2011
5. Nick Kotz, “Hunger in America: The Federal Response,” Field Foundation (New York), 1979.
6. Effects of Changes in Food Stamp Expenditures Across the U.S. Economy,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. 2002. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/fanrr26/fanrr26-6/fanrr26-6.pdf
7. “Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2010,” Nutrition Assistance Program Report Series, USDA Food and Nutrition Service, the Office of Research and Analysis, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Report No. SNAP-11-CHAR, September 2012
8. Mark R. Rank, PhD; Thomas A. Hirschl, PhD , “Estimating the Risk of Food Stamp Use and Impoverishment During Childhood.” Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine. 2009;163(11):994-999.
9. “Fact check: Gingrich’s faulty food-stamp claim,” Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-01-18/fact-check-gingrich-obama-food-stamps/52645882/1
10. “Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Proposal of the President of the United States, U.S. Department of Agriculture,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/agr.pdf
11. Binyamin Applebaum and Robert Gebeloff, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It,” The New York Times, February 11, 2012, page A1
12. “Fighting SNAP Fraud,’ USDA Food and Nutrition Service fact sheet, http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud.htm, accessed February 20, 2012.
13. “School Breakfast Scorecard, School Year 2010-2011,” Food Research and Action Center, http://frac.org/pdf/school_breakfast_scorecard_2010-2011.pdf, accessed February 20, 2012
14. “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2011,” Food Research Action Center, June, 2011, http://frac.org/pdf/summer_report_2011.pdf, accessed February 20, 2012.