Testimony of Joel Berg, CEO, Hunger Free America
Submitted to “The Next Farm Bill, Conversations in the Field”
Listening Session of U.S. House Agriculture Committee
October 9, 2017
My name is Joel Berg, and I am the CEO at Hunger Free America, a national 501c3 nonprofit group which both provides direct service and engages in policy research and advocacy. We are helping to build a bold, grass-roots, non-partisan movement in all 50 states to enact the policies and programs necessary to end domestic hunger and ensure that all Americans have sufficient access to nutritious food. Our motto is “Ending Hunger Lifts Us All,” denoting that, if we collectively succeed in getting all Americans sufficient access to nutritious food, that would lift the nation both spiritually and economically.
We thank the Committee for holding these listening sessions and for the ability to submit testimony.
Before I go into details, I will stress four broad points.
- Farmers, ranchers, and low-income American consumers are all in this together, and none of these three populations can thrive without enabling the other two populations to thrive.
As long as 41 million Americans live in food insecure households – unable to afford an adequate supply of food – U.S. farmers and ranchers will lose significant income. The new Farm Bill should implement bold, comprehensive reforms to enable hungry Americans to obtain more food – and particularly fruits and vegetables – directly from U.S. producers.
I note that even in rural, bucolic Schoharie County, where we are meeting today, fully 3,490 people – more than one in ten county residents – rely upon SNAP benefits to feed their families. Even in this rural county, six times as many people receive SNAP as USDA farm aid.
- Federal spending on SNAP and other nutritional assistance programs should be increased dramatically, in order to end hunger in the U.S. and save society significant spending on other items -- not slashed to fund ever-larger tax cuts for the very wealthy.
It is simply unacceptable that one in eight Americans (12.3% or 41.2 million) lived in households that couldn’t afford enough food in 2016. In contrast, in 2007, before the recession, 36 million Americans faced food insecurity. We should not accept 41 million food-strapped Americans the “new normal.” A 2011 study by the Center for American Progress found food insecurity sapped our economy of $167.5 billion since hungry children learn less effectively, hungry adults work less productively, and malnourished seniors require additional health care spending.
Hunger Free America has calculated that the United States could end domestic food insecurity if we increased the food purchasing power of food insecure families by $21 billion per year (spent on a combination of wage subsidies and increase federal nutrition benefits). It is far cheaper for America to end hunger than to foster it.
- Congress should authorize pilot programs at the state, county, and city level to use modern technology to make it easier for low-income Americans to apply for – and monitor their use of – a wide range of anti-hunger and anti-poverty benefits.
This testimony proposes very specific ways that Congress could do so.
- Congress should not enact any additional cuts in SNAP funding under a misleading guise of “reform” or false claims of reducing “waste, fraud, or abuse.” New cuts would mean more U.S. hunger.
All gimmicks to supposedly reduce fraud – like bans on lottery winners obtaining SNAP – have already been exhausted in previous legislation. In the last Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill and the last Farm Bill, SNAP was cut by more than $10 billion overall, causing serious food hardships. If one more penny is cut from SNAP, that will further increase hunger in the U.S., which already has a far higher rate of hunger than another other industrialized, Western, nation – as well as harm farmers and ranchers.
I also add that, given, the current majority in the House often makes the claim that states runs programs better than the federal government, it would be highly inconsistent for the majority to take away flexibility from states to use categorical eligibly to enable the SNAP program in their states to better serve working families.
Additional Background on Hunger and Food Insecurity in the U.S.
Most hungry Americans are working parents, children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and/or veterans.
A study by Hunger Free American found that 16 million Americans worked but still struggles with hunger in 2015. Nearly half of all SNAP recipients are in families with at least one person currently working (in low-wage jobs); most of the rest have an adult temporarily unemployed. In fact, 90% of adult SNAP recipients with children are employed the year before and the year after obtaining benefits, but are still greatly stigmatized.
According to USDA, food insecurity is found in households in all parts of the country, with similar numbers of food insecure households in cities (5.3 million) and suburbs (5.1 million), thereby disproving the false, racially-charged implication that all US hunger is in “inner cities.” Rural America had a higher percentage of food insecure families (15%) than urban (14.2%) and suburban (9.5%). Households with children headed by a single woman (31.6%) are more than three times as likely to be food insecure than married-couple families with children (9.9%). While the largest number of hungry Americans are White, Black households are more than twice as likely as white households to be food insecure.
Background on the Opportunity Costs of Poverty
Economists often apply the term “opportunity costs” to high and middle-income people, meaning that the time they spend on one task is time not available to perform other, potentially more valuable tasks. Yet social scientists rarely apply the concept to low-income people, acting as if their time is essentially worthless. Similar to a spouse who doesn’t count your food shopping, cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, accounting for family finances, shuttling family member to appointments, taking care of your sick parents, etc., etc. as work.
A lack of time works mightily against the efforts of low-income people to have constructive relationships with their families and with the broader society.
Many low-income people work two or even three jobs. If they are unemployed, they spend a great deal of time looking for work. They often travel by public transportation, laboriously making one, or two, or three connections to shuttle between home, work, social service agencies, houses of worship, and grocery stores. If they work as a nanny for someone else’s children, because they themselves can’t afford to pay for childcare or babysitters, they also must take the extra time to care for their own kids. If they work as home health aides to assist someone else’s parents, because they can’t afford home health care themselves, they also must take the time to care for their own folks.
While it’s true that government safety net programs help tens of million Americans avoid starvation, homelessness, and other outcomes even more dreadful than everyday poverty, it is also true that government anti-poverty aid is generally a major hassle to obtain and keep. Congress, which creates the laws governing the programs, and most state and localities, which implement those laws, purposely make it extremely difficult to advertise these programs and enable families to access them. That’s why many low-income people are actually unaware of all the government benefits for which they are eligible, reducing the amount of help going to Americans in need by tens of billions of dollars every year.
Even if low-income people do know about available aid, the journey to receive it is usually long, onerous, and time-consuming. They need to go to one government office to apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance benefits, formerly known as food stamps), a different government office to apply for housing assistance, a separate WIC (Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program) clinic to obtain WIC benefits, and a variety of other government offices to apply for other types of aid – sometimes traveling long distances by public transportation or on foot to get there, and then, once they’ve walked through the door, they are often forced to wait for hours at each office to be served. Even when people initially apply for benefits online, they often have to physically go to one or more government offices to follow-up. They need to bring piles of paperwork to each office, usually with slightly different combinations of documents every time. Making copies of the paperwork also takes time (and money). The lines in these offices can seem endless, and sometimes clients need to wait outside, for hours, in the worst kinds of weather. If the office is especially backed up that day, or if the government case workers lost the previously-submitted paperwork, yet another visit on another day will be required, taking the same excruciating travel and waiting times. Many offices don’t have weekend or night hours, so if an applicant works, she or he will likely lose wages by applying for government help, since most low-income workers, unlike white-collar workers, often get no paid leave. Clients can try calling on the phone, but it’s rare for a human being to actually answer, and the voice mailboxes are often full.
When a bureaucrat finally sees an applicant at an office, they will usually ask many of the same intrusive, detailed, lengthy questions about finances and personal situations as similar government workers did at the last three offices. It’s as if you have to explain to 12 different cousins at six different family get-togethers why your marriage fell apart and why you need to sleep on each of their couches for a night – while also having to hand over to each of them your complete tax records to prove why you are too broke to pay rent to them for that night of couch-surfing. In most places, families must even fill out additional forms, which their children must bring to school, to qualify their kids for free or reduced-price school meals.
To be sure, these government benefits provide a critical lifeline – and they often are the difference between a family eating and not eating and between them having a home or being homeless – but just because these programs are vital doesn’t mean they are perfect. Besides, more affluent Americans aren’t forced to jump through nearly as many hoops when they obtain far more expensive government aid, like farm subsidies or tax deductions for their vacation homes.
To obtain some form of help, low-income benefits applicants may also be required to attend job readiness classes, even if they have jobs and children at home. Such classes are often useless exercises in writing résumés for jobs that don’t require résumés or in obtaining training for jobs that don’t exist. Often these classes are worthless time sucks for attendees and exist to give large payouts to politically connected contractors. If applicants quit the classes, they often lose benefits for themselves and their children. The system pits parents against their children, over and over again.
Are you fed up? Are you tired yet? Well, if you live in poverty, your day has only begun.
Most poor folks, like all of us, also have to file tax returns with the IRS, sometimes paying a tax preparer handsomely to do so, even if the government owes them an EITC refund payment. A Progressive Policy Institute study found that in 2016, low-income workers paid an average of around $400 each to national tax preparation chains.
But wait, there’s more.
Given that the United States has hundreds of thousands of nonprofit groups providing social services, it is nearly impossible for struggling people to determine which of those organizations provides services they need, whether the organization is conveniently located, and for which services they are eligible. If they do figure out that a nonprofit (or multiple nonprofits) could help, they will need to take the time to visit each one, where sometimes lines around the block ensure yet another seemingly endless wait, only to fill out even more paperwork, and go through yet more interviews.
And since many government and nonprofit programs require frequent re-applications and re-certifications, a low-income person often has to jump through all these hoops every few months. In America, trying to get out of poverty can be a full-time job.
Plus, it’s rare for the multiple government and nonprofit programs aimed at low-income people to work together in a coherent fashion to bolster families’ long-term self-sufficiency. Too often, these programs work at cross-purposes, so that obtaining one benefit might make a recipient ineligible for another. (The reverse is sometimes true, where getting one benefit makes a recipient automatically eligible for other benefits – but conservatives are trying to make that less common.) Sometimes a person can’t win for losing, such as when she or he finally gets a raise and then loses benefits because of it, and the amount of the raise is less than the value of benefits lost. On the other hand, getting a job can make someone eligible for EITC payments, the value of which may exceeds the amount of benefits lost. But that’s a crap shoot too because it often depends upon household composition and a variety of other factors.
And that’s not all.
If low-income people don’t have a checking account or credit cards (and most don’t), they can’t pay bills by mail or online. Instead, they have to pay for everything in cash, spending money on extremely high fees at check cashing facilities that prey on residents of poor neighborhoods. And even then they aren’t done, because paying bills in cash often requires a visit to the phone company, the electric company, the landlord, and the gas company, where more long lines await the person who must pay their bills in person.
Poor folks are less likely to have a washing machine in their homes or buildings, so more time must be spent at laundromats. There are neither doormen at their buildings, nor secured delivery spaces, so if they ever get a package, is a trip to the post office necessary – where they will inevitably find even more lines.
For all Americans, including well-off ones, modern life is complex. There are always a zillion family, work, personal, community, religious, and civic obligations. With ever-shifting and complex options, it’s a challenge to effectively juggle them all and it can feel impossible to plan for the future. But affluent Americans are able to get professional help in sorting through their options and obligations, utilizing the best personal assistants, financial advisors, and modern technology that their money can buy. Similarly, our government needs to get serious about helping low-income people clarify their options and simplify their lives.
Putting H.O.P.E. into the Palm of Your Hand
Technology has fundamentally revamped the lives of most Americans, usually for the better. Now it’s time for use digital technology – combined with policy improvements -- to simplify the lives and boost the long-term self-sufficiency of our lowest-income residents. That’s is why Hunger Free American has proposed that our federal, state, and local governments to create online HOPE (Health, Opportunity, and Personal Empowerment) accounts and action plans.
Here’s how HOPE would work: the President and Congress would need to work together to enact a law that would authorize pilot projects under which the federal Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), House and Urban Development, (HUD), Treasury, and Agriculture (USDA) to work together with states, counties and localities -- and to form public/private partnerships with banks, credit unions, and technology companies – to create HOPE accounts and action plans that combine improved technology, streamlined case management, and coordinated access to multiple federal, state, city, and nonprofit programs that already exist. Select states and localities would initially be asked to voluntary participate in pilot projects implementing the accounts and plans.
Once the accounts and plans are in place, workers could voluntarily choose to also have their paychecks deposited directly into the accounts, which would be held by private banks and credit unions that voluntarily chose to participate in the program. Families could also use the accounts to increase their savings, which would be matched by government and private sources, incorporating both IDAs and Kids Accounts. Job training and placement services would be modernized to connect real people with real jobs, and people could use the account app to easily locate and sign-up for such services online. All these efforts would work together in harmony to better give people in poverty the tools they need to take charge of their futures and to implement long-term plans to climb into – and stay in – the middle class. If Congress fails to pass authorizing legislation, the next President could achieve much of the above administratively. Also, if Washington fails to act fully or at all, states or localities could step up to the plate to enact similar programs on their own.
The pilot states and localities could issue open calls to allow a variety of banks and credit unions to compete to create such accounts, and they pick a number of the best proposals, thereby allowing low-income consumers with a choice of financial institutions to pick, Once set up, HOPE accounts would enable families to use any smart phone, tablet, or computer to learn about the public and philanthropic programs for which they are eligible – including aid to improve health, nutrition, job training and placement, housing, income, etc. – and then apply for all of these programs at once from the convenience of their device. If supporting documents need to be submitted with the application, then families could take pictures of those documents and submit the pictures with the application. A surprising number of low-income people already have smart phones and/or home computers, not because they are luxuries, but because they are essential tools of learning and work in modern America. But families that don’t own a smart phone, tablet, or computer could be provided a basic one, along with a subsidized Wi-Fi/Internet access plan, and people uncomfortable with technology could go to a library, government office, or nonprofit agency to be walked through the system. For elderly and disabled shut-ins who can’t access the technology, government or nonprofit employees and/or AmeriCorps national service participants could make home visits to help. As noted previously, the AmeriCorps program should be expanded dramatically to aid these and other vital efforts.
To make it easier to access health care, HOPE accounts would also clearly specify medical benefits, and any out-of-pocket costs, for each of the health plans for which the users are eligible, and empower them to easily select the plan that works best for them.
The accounts could also enable working families to file for federal EITC refunds, and, in states and localities with their own supplemental EITC payments, to simultaneously file for those as well. Since the accounts will already have all the financial information needed to file for those payments, families could easily do so with this app, saving the time and money they would otherwise have to spend on third-party tax filing services
While HOPE accounts are a new idea, the concept builds upon existing programs, such as the IDA program, and incorporates technological improvements in social services delivery that some forward-thinking states, cities, and counties are already implementing. For example, in New York City, the city government is already using updated technologies to allow families to apply online for multiple government benefits, through a portal called Access NYC (https://a069-access.nyc.gov), which allows users to pre-screen their eligibility for array of government programs, and, for some of the programs, to apply for them on line. The city has even started a pilot project to allow people to apply for SNAP and cash assistance, but not other programs, by smart phone. But even in New York, the number of programs to which someone can actually apply online is limited, and applicants still must follow various procedures, on various timelines to access various programs, and still must visit or call multiple offices.
A Better Alternative: Online HOPE Accounts
Building on such innovations, but moving beyond them, HOPE accounts would enable families to rapidly apply for – and quickly learn if they are accepted into – all federal, state, and local government programs, as well as offer users information for wide variety of services provided by nonprofit groups. HOPE accounts would also include a calculator system to help families understand the financial impact of one program upon other programs.
All program benefit funds would go into the same system, with health care, food, housing, and other specific benefits accounted for separately from the cash. Overall funding for these programs would be maintained, or increased, and federal benefits that are now entitlements, such as SNAP and Medicaid, should continue to be entitlements, which people would still have a legal right to obtain. Families would also be encouraged to put their own cash savings into the accounts, which could then be matched. Any cash in the account set aside for education, job training, starting a business, or buying a home would be non-taxable. Sure, that’s a bit complicated, but still a heck of a lot easier for a family than figuring out all this out on their own. And if they still need help, some government and nonprofit social workers would still be available to guide them through the application and follow-up processes.
The accounts would allow low-income families to easily access and monitor – in one central online account – the status, amounts, and recertification deadlines for all their benefits and savings. They could also use the accounts to pay all bills online, saving outrageous check cashing fees, and enormous amounts of time.
The accounts could also include a budgeting function to give families real-time cash flow data and long-term financial planning data, including helping them to calculate how much they would lose in interest on credit cards versus how much they would gain in interest by saving more. The accounts would offer a calendar and scheduling function, enabling families to keep track of all job search, work, family, and school obligations, as well as any social service filing or appointment dates.
Instead of a vast army of government and nonprofit caseworkers in charge of micromanaging the lives of low-income people, low-income adults would become, in effect, their own case managers. With this newfound power, people will be able spread their wings and take flight.
I should note that these new apps and social service computer systems will be extraordinarily challenging to build and even more challenging to integrate with each other, especially given the current, antiquated condition of government social service computer systems, especially at the state level, and a unique system would need to be set up for each state. These new system must combine ease of client access with very strict protections against fraud and theft, not easy considerations to balance. So the nation’s top tech leaders and companies would need to be challenged to work together with government to make this a reality.
It is also vital to stress that technological innovation alone won’t solve these problems – a wide variety of federal and state laws must change in order to ensure seamless interactions between varied social service programs. Hunger Free America has already submitted to committee staff suggested legislative language for authoring such pilots.
H.O.P.E. Action Plans
Helping struggling families save time and money is a good start, but that’s not enough. Low-income families still need clear aspirations for the future. That’s why families should be given the option of more in depth partnering with government and nonprofit organizations by voluntarily agreeing to long-term HOPE action plans that will specify exactly how all parties will work together to help the families earn, learn, and save better in order to ensure greater economic opportunity for themselves and their children. The idea behind the action plans is to ensure that all the programs and people involved are working together in a long-term, positive relationship for the purpose of ensuing upward mobility.
How might an HOPE action plan work in real life? In direct contrast to a plan proposed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan that would force low-income families to sign contracts to take actions that would waste their time and sap their dignity while giving them no additional resources to solve their concrete problems, HOPE action plans would be voluntary and could empower families who agree to them to better organize their time and focus their activities on productive endeavors while providing them extra resources to do so. Some plans could be short-term, over just a year or two, aimed at helping families achieve very basic goals, such as avoiding homelessness and hunger. But they could be long-term as well, with far more ambitious goals for upward mobility.
For example, a single mother of two young children could voluntarily enter into a 10-year plan
jointly with her city government’s social service agency and with a local United Way. The plan would include yearly benchmarks of how the mother would use increased resources provided by the plan to boost her jobs skills, increase her earnings, improve the housing situation for her family, obtain more nutritious food, and begin to put money aside to help her children pay for college. Once the specific goals are set, the specific actions each entity would be required to take in order for the mother to meet her goals – as well as the additional money and other resources that will need to be allocated for these actions from the family, the government, and the nonprofit partners – would all be spelled out in the plan. Let me be clear: the main causes of hunger and poverty are economic, so the top thing H.O.P.E Action Plans need to do is provide each participating household with more money and resources. But if the plans did provide more help, the mother in this example might be motivated to work even harder and sacrifice by saving more, but knowing that government and charities also had a concrete stake and belief in her success, and knowing that she would ultimately advance herself and her family, she’d be glad to do it. Tangible hope is the world’s most powerful motivator.
This approach may sound like traditional social work case management, which is too often based on the patronizing belief that social workers – who a little too frequently sit in condescending judgment of other people’s life choices – know what’s better for low-income people than low-income people themselves. Yet the HOPE approach is entirely different than traditional casework, and is more in line with the kind of guidance a wealthy person gets from a financial advisor who simply works families through all the available options to boost their economic well-being.
Unlike the mandatory, one-sided contracts proposed by Ryan, under which only the low-income people would be held accountable, under the HOPE proposal, all the entities involved –government agencies, nonprofit groups, and low-income participants –would be equally accountable. Unlike Ryan’s plan to strip struggling families of agency, the HOPE plan would instead empower them by making government and non-profit agencies legally accountable to participants for keeping up their part of the bargain.
Everyone who receives government help – which means everyone in America, from bankers who get government bail-outs, to truckers who ride over government roads, to defense contractors, to students who obtain Pell Grants or Stafford Loans, to farmers who obtain federal subsides, to recipients of anti-poverty benefits – should have responsibilities in exchange for their government aid.
In the case of HOPE, this new civic compact of mutual responsibility would be a boon to both people in poverty and middle-class taxpayers, restoring each side’s faith in the other.
Now, isn’t the HOPE approach much better than the social services status quo? Low-income Americans will be happier because they can, all by themselves, receive help in one centralized location instead of dozens of places. They can plan their own futures. They can fly wherever they want, however they want – reducing depression with their newfound freedom.
Government and nonprofit agency workers will be happier because they are more effective. Taxpayers will be happier because their dollars will be used more wisely.
Moreover, HOPE would empower families by giving them the necessary tools to take charge of their own futures – moving beyond the facile rhetoric that they should, on their own, “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” By promoting personal responsibility and a more efficient government, as well as increased economic opportunity and easier ways to get government aid, HOPE advances both conservative and liberal priorities. By superseding today’s stultified ideological debate, HOPE would actually be radically centrist, prompting massive progressive changes in American society, but would do so based on mainstream values widely embraced by the public. It should be a model for all our governmental policies and a ladder to achieve the American dream, bringing the entire populace together again.
Likely Objections to the H.O.P.E Proposals from Both the Left and the Right
Some conservatives will no doubt fear that an approach like HOPE would make it easier for low-income people to get government assistance, thereby increasing dependency and government spending. But HOPE would reduce government bureaucracy and paperwork, and ensure that more of the money spent goes to helping families instead of bureaucracies, all of which are professed conservative goals.
Some conservatives believe that getting government help should be a difficult, shameful process, and making it less so would only increase dependency on government. But it’s inconsistent for the Right to argue for government to be less intrusive in the lives of most Americans but more intrusive in the lives of low-income Americans. Plus, by freeing up parents’ time to give them more ability to work, study, and spend time with their families, HOPE is “pro-family,” “pro-work,” and “pro-education” and thus would reduce long-term dependency.
Some liberals may also be wary because, at first blush, Hope accounts and action plans appear to be similar to the punitive contracts and safety net slashing block grant proposals advanced by Speaker Paul Ryan and other conservatives. But God is in the details, and, in reality, the HOPE accounts and actions plans would be 180 degrees different in both intention and implementation from conservative schemes. Yes, the delivery mechanism sounds similar, but we should not fixate too much on delivery mechanisms. After all, the Internet is a delivery mechanism that can deliver either text from the bible or pornography – it’s the content, not the delivery mechanism – that truly matters.
The content of H.O.P.E is nearly the mirror opposite of the content of the Ryan plan. Ryan has used his anti-poverty plans as a cover for decimating existing government benefits for low-income families. In contrast, HOPE would provide anti-poverty benefits far above the current levels (out of new pots of money, not shifted from other antipoverty programs) so true self-sufficiency could be achieved. Unlike the Ryan and other GOP proposals that would replace existing federal programs, the HOPE accounts and plans would be in addition to existing government efforts. Unlike Ryan’s proposal, which assumes that his proposed opportunity grants can somehow succeed even if the rest of the safety net is slashed and the economy is still failing, this proposal assumes that HOPE accounts and plans can be effective in tandem with a strong safety net and the broad-based economic growth that creates jobs and raises wages. HOPE would also end the arbitrary benefit cliffs that kick in when families marginally increase their incomes as they struggle to enter – and remain in – the middle class. Ideally, the HOPE initiative would be funded robustly enough by the government and the philanthropic sectors so that all those ends could be achieved.
Liberals may also worry that HOPE might undercut public employees and their unions, which provide liberal candidates with vital troops, votes, and donations. Given the union-busting campaigns undertaken by Scott Walker, John Kasich, and other GOP governors, such concerns are understandable. So let me make it crystal clear that the HOPE proposal is based on the assumption that most public employees are dedicated, underpaid, and have a right to organize to defend their interests. Some social workers would keep jobs similar to their existing ones, in order to answer questions about HOPE over the phone or from clients who still prefer face-to-face meetings. While HOPE would indeed eliminate most other government positions that are currently for handling paperwork and client interviews, this proposal recommends that employees holding those positions over time be transitioned into more useful functions such as training and placing low-income adults into living wage jobs, staffing universal pre-k programs, or aiding shut-in seniors. Public employees themselves would be happier if they spent less time filling out paperwork and more time directly aiding the public.
Some liberals worry that merely suggesting that government programs can be improved or that low-income Americans have personal responsibility for their own futures reinforces conservative messages, effectively giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” Some might argue more broadly that it’s inconsistent for anti-poverty advocates like myself to effusively praise safety net programs like SNAP, but also pointing out their significant flaws. Those arguments are also reasonable, but ultimately they are not convincing. There’s nothing inconsistent in pointing out that programs significantly improve the lives of recipients but could help beneficiaries even more if they were modernized. Just as even generally solid relationships can always be improved by both sides thoroughly addressing life realities (including painful realities), so too, social services can be further improved through an unflinching examination of their current defects.
Some progressives might worry that funneling all anti-poverty funding into one program might it easier in the future for conservatives to cut them. Yet the recent trend of omnibus budget deals has already allowed conservatives to cut all anti-poverty programs at once with tools such as the sequestration process. Taking no action because you are afraid things could get even worse makes little sense. That’s sort of like when two people are in front of a firing squad, about to be executed, and one asks the other if they should ask for a cigarette, and the other responds: “Nah, I don’t want to make them mad.”
In the end, though, the question that is most important is whether HOPE would make life better or worse – in both the short-term and the long-term – for the people the programs are intended to help. So let’s ask low-income Americans a basic question:
Should We Replace This … With This?
Given low-income Americans’ own frustrations with anti-poverty programs intended for their betterment the answer would likely to a resounding “yes.”
A New Kind of Farm Bill
I love living in Brooklyn, New York, especially when it comes to food. My apartment is just three blocks away from the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, one of the best in the country, where you can shop for seasonal heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms, and garlic scapes just harvested from upstate New York and New Jersey farms; wild-caught Long Island scallops; and crisper than crisp Hudson Valley apples. My neighborhood has it all, including fake local maple syrup. Elsewhere in Brooklyn, I can go to any number of weekly food festivals and gorge on homemade sausages, artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches, hand-crafted cold sesame noodles, and neighborhood-fermented kombucha. I can get Polish pierogies in Greenpoint, Salvadoran pupusas in Red Hook, Bosnian burgers in Bushwick, or Chinese dumplings in Sunset Park—all of which are world-class in quality.
Today’s Brooklyn is indeed “Foodie Heaven.” I—and many others of my middle- and upper-income neighbors—can obtain all those tidbits because we have enough money and time to do so. Yet many of our fellow Brooklynites aren’t so fortunate. In the years 2012 to 2014, an average of 569,659 Brooklyn residents (about the combined populations of Des Moines and Wichita) were living on the brink of hunger, unable to afford enough food. One-quarter of Brooklyn children lived in these food-insecure homes. For them, Brooklyn is a food hell.
The rest of the nation is equally populated by food “haves” and food “have nots.” To overcome that, the next Farm Bill should:
- Increase and expand the SNAP program—in particular, make the benefits more available to low-income working families. Make it easier to use SNAP benefits at farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects. Adopt the economy food plan. Eliminate so-called work requirements for ABAWDS, which do little to promote or support real work but instead waste tax dollars on paperwork, bureaucracy, and bloated payments for politically-connected contractors. Maintain food choice. Eliminate additional restrictions on legal immigrants that were imposed in 1996.
- Include “Sense of Congress” language encouraging the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill to: ensure sufficient federal reimbursements to provide all students of all family incomes in all elementary, middle, and high schools nationwide with tasty, nutritious breakfasts, lunches, afterschool suppers, and summer meals—locally and regionally sourced and sustainably produced whenever possible—free of charge, with no required paperwork; and to make the federal Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC)—which provides nutritional supplements to low-income pregnant woman and children under five—an entitlement program so it will always have sufficient funding to ensure that everyone who qualifies for the help can get it. Make it easier for women to use WIC benefits to obtain fresh produce at farmers markets and CSAs.
- Provide start-up and operating subsidies for CSAs that serve low-income neighborhoods, such as the pioneering ones started in New York City by Hunger Free America.
- Create a Food Jobs Program by providing targeted seed money and technical assistance to food-related businesses (see details below).
- Overhaul food labeling to ensure that all labels are large, clear, and accurate and base their serving sizes on what real people actually eat. The US government has made some progress on this front recently, but we need to do more. The government should also adopt a national food point system—tied to an easy-to-use smartphone app—to simplify and personalize daily nutritional choices for consumers. Any ingredients that include Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) should be labeled as such, but not in a way that gives the false impression that GMOs have been proven to harm humans (which they haven’t).
- Merge the Food and Drug Administration with the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and make them a single, independent federal agency in charge of food safety. Staff it with impartial experts with unimpeachable expertise, and stop the revolving doors through which so many former regulators head straight to food corporations and trade associations after leaving federal service. It is imperative that consumers have and can count on a government food safety “referee” they truly trust. You wouldn’t depend on your mother-in-law for couples counseling, so we shouldn’t have to depend upon biased agencies to make food safety rulings.
- Eliminate the billions of dollars the US now spends on subsidies to massive corporate agribusinesses. Of that money saved, use a third of it to support the anti-hunger programs mentioned above, a third of it to aid true small- and medium-sized farms (especially fruit and vegetable producers) with conservation efforts to protect soil and water quality, and use the remaining third of the money to reduce the federal deficit.
- Include “Sense of Congress” language encouraging the next Older Americans Act Reauthorization Bill to expand the availability and nutritional quality of meals for older Americans through Meals on Wheels and aggregate (senior center) meals programs.
- Include “Sense of Congress” language encouraging labor and wage legislation to ensure that all who pick, process, and serve America’s food have safe working conditions and earn a living wage.
A Better Way to Fight Obesity
Let’s move beyond the counterproductive, class-biased efforts to micromanage what low-income people can eat or drink, America. Let’s reset the obesity and hunger debate in order to develop a more comprehensive plan for enabling Americans in poverty to obtain more nutritious food.
Even though I believe that all of us, low-income or not, should be able to occasionally choose a sweetened beverage or have other snack foods as a small part of an overall balanced diet, there is no question that Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds drink far too much soda. The over-consumption of unhealthy foods is surely one of many contributors to the nation’s high obesity, heart disease, and diabetes rates and the accompanying skyrocketing healthcare costs. I hold special contempt for food industry efforts that target its unhealthiest products to low-income neighborhoods, children, and communities of color.
The reason I opposed attempts by then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others since then to ban the ability to purchase of soda with SNAP benefits is that it was based on a false diagnosis of the problem, which then resulted in a misguided treatment. Supporters of the ban, as well as the numerous (mostly unsuccessful) proposals to levy additional taxes on certain foods (including soda), thought that the root of the problem was that low-income people always choose to eat junk food because of ignorance or apathy, thereby requiring coercive or even punitive measures.
In reality, the main reason that low-income people don’t eat more healthfully is that nutritious food often doesn’t exist in their neighborhoods, and when it does it is frequently too expensive or too time-consuming to obtain and prepare. When those barriers are overcome, low-income people flock to consume better food. Low-income families, for instance, heavily utilize subsidized farmers markets and CSAs when they are available in their neighborhoods.
That is why we should accelerate efforts to increase the availability of healthier food choices in low-income areas. The Obama administration, as well as many state and city governments, have worked with the private and nonprofit sectors in recent years to provide incentives to open more supermarkets, CSAs, and farmers markets in underserved rural and urban communities. For example, New York City has launched a pioneering program to place “Green Cart” fresh produce vendors in food deserts (areas where there is a dearth of healthy, fresh foods). Such efforts should be accelerated and expanded and should ensure that all vendors accept SNAP and WIC benefits.
We should also increase the purchasing power of low-income Americans to buy nutritious foods. As of 2016, SNAP benefits provided, on average, only a little more than $31 per person per week. According to the USDA, non-hungry American families spend about $50 per week per person on food, $10.00 more than food-insecure families.
Studies prove that when families have more money for food they will use it to buy healthier, fresher food. Thus the simplest way to increase such food purchasing is to increase the average monthly SNAP allotment and expand the number of low-income people eligible.
Given that struggling workers are so often strapped for time, food that is better for you should also be made more convenient. I challenge entrepreneurs to open truly nutritious, affordable fast food shops and food trucks in low-income neighborhoods and towns across the country.
Turn Food Deserts into Jobs Oases
Tens of millions of Americans need more nutritious, more affordable food. Tens of millions need better jobs. Just as the federal government gave some support to “green jobs” initiatives to simultaneously fight unemployment and protect the environment, it should also launch a “Good Food, Good Jobs” project.
Low-income areas across America that lack access to nutritious foods at affordable prices—the so-called “food deserts”—tend to be the same communities and neighborhoods that, even in better economic times, are also “job deserts” that lack sufficient living-wage employment. A concurrent problem has been the growing concentration of our food supply in a handful of food companies that are now “too big to fail.” A Good Food, Good Jobs program can address these intertwined economic and social problems.
In partnership with state, local, and tribal governments, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector, a federal food jobs initiative would bolster employment, foster economic growth, fight hunger, cut obesity, cut poverty, improve nutrition, and reduce spending on diet-related health problems.
In the best-case scenario, such a program could create large numbers of living-wage jobs in self-sustaining businesses even as it addresses our food, health, and nutrition problems. But even in a worst-case scenario, the plan would create short-term subsidized jobs that would provide an economic stimulus, and at least offer low-income consumers the choice of more nutritious foods in the areas where they live—a choice so often denied to them.
A Good Food, Good Jobs program could provide the first serious national test of the effectiveness of using food partnerships to boost the economy and improve public health. The new initiative should:
- Provide more and better-targeted seed money to food jobs projects: The federal government should expand and more carefully target its existing grants and loans to start new, and expand existing, community food projects, such as city and rooftop gardens; urban farms; food co-ops; farm stands; CSAs; farmers markets; community kitchens; and projects that hire unemployed youth to grow, market, sell, and deliver nutritious foods while teaching them entrepreneurial skills.
- Bolster food processing: Since there is far more profit in processing food than in simply growing it (and since farming is only a seasonal occupation), the initiative should focus on supporting food businesses that add value year-round, such as neighborhood food processing/freezing/canning plants; businesses that turn raw produce into ready-to-eat salads, salad dressings, sandwiches, and other products; healthy vending-machine companies; and affordable and nutritious restaurants and catering businesses.\
- Expand community-based technical assistance and procurement: Federal, state, and local governments should dramatically expand technical assistance to these community food efforts and support them by buying their products for school meals and other government nutrition assistance programs, as well as for jails, military facilities, hospitals, and concession stands in public parks, among other venues.
- Invest in urban fish farming: Given that fish is the category of food most likely to be imported, and given the growing environmental concerns over both wild and farm-raised fish, the initiative should provide significant investment into the research and development of environmentally sustainable, urban fish-production facilities.
- Develop a better way of measuring success: the USDA should develop a “food access index,” a measure that would take into account both the physical availability and economic affordability of nutritious foods and use this measure as another tool to judge the success of food jobs projects. All such efforts should be subject to strict performance-based outcome measures; programs should not receive continued funding unless they can prove their worth.
- Implement a focused food jobs research agenda: We should eventually be able to answer the following questions: Can community food enterprises that pay their workers sufficient wages also make products that are affordable? Can these projects become economically self-sufficient over the long run, particularly if they are ramped up to benefit from economies of scale? Would government revenues increase as a result of economic growth and, likewise, spending on healthcare and social services decrease as a result of such efforts? Would the money generated or saved offset the cost of long-term project subsidies? How would the cost and benefits of government spending on community food security compare to the cost and benefits of tens of billions of dollars that the US government now spends on traditional farm programs?
For a community to benefit from good nutrition, three conditions must be present: food must be affordable; food must be physically available and convenient; and individuals and families must have sufficient knowledge about good nutrition with time and ability to act on that knowledge by obtaining, preparing, and eating healthier foods. These comprehensive proposals, when enacted at once, would accomplish all those objectives.
Farmers, ranchers, and low-income Americans would all equally benefit.