Friday, May 19, 2017

Threats to the social safety net

Jim Weill, the President and CEO of the Food Research andAction Center (FRAC) in Washington, DC, was the keynote speaker at the Hunger Solutions New York conference in Albany on Wednesday.  Jim said that we live in complicated times, where we are uncertain what is going to happen next, but we can count on threats to the social safety net for low-income people.

Jim offered the analysis that SNAP explains a lot about what’s happening in this country.  1 of 8 people in the US receive SNAP benefits each month.  Movement in and out of poverty means that half of all children are on SNAP at some point in their childhood and half of all adults receive SNAP at some point between ages of 20 and 60.

Jim continued by noting that most low-income people and SNAP recipients are working or anxious to get back to work.  Or they are hoping for living wages or struggling in retirement.  Yet these people identify themselves as middle class, despite their struggles.

Jim looked back over the last few decades in his speech.  The economy is twice as big per capita as when Reagan took office, but despite that, the poverty rate is higher.  High food insecurity, the USDA measure of hunger, is double what it was during Clinton administration.  Median earnings have declined to about 2/3 of what they were in the 1970’s.  At same time, the rich are getting richer.  All these things explain the frustration demonstrated in the last election,

Next, Jim noted that it would be even worse if it wasn’t for government intervention – Medicaid, SNAP, etc. – which have been improved over last 30 years to reach the working poor.  These programs lift people out of poverty and food insecurity.  SNAP lifts more people out of poverty than any other program except social security for the elderly.

Government has been picking up the slack dropped by employers – wages, health insurance, etc.  Many conservatives want to dismantle these programs, but employers won’t be picking these things back up.  We can expect that the cuts will take a variety of forms – tougher work tests, time limits, drug testing, limiting options for states, and block granting programs.  We can see the results of block granting with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, what most people refer to as “welfare”).  When TANF was turned into a block grant to the state, on average states spent only half of the money they receive for this program on services for low-income people.  Some states spend only 20% on direct services!

Many of the proposals around the social safety net carry a double whammy for low-income people as they will both lower the minimum wage and cut programs that support working poor.  FRAC’s public opinion polling indicates that 8 out of 10 people don’t want to see these programs cut.  To prevent these kinds of cuts, this year is going to be critical.  Jim urged us to keep up our advocacy at the national level, but also engage mayors and town councils to work with our Congressional delegation on these issues.