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New Report Puts Spotlight on Poverty, Hunger Programs

Politicians seem ready to talk about poverty in America in 2016, at least as demonstrated by a Republican presidential forum on the issue in South Carolina this month.

The key question for the co-chairmen of the bipartisan, congressionally appointed National Commission on Hunger is whether the talk will lead to action on any of the 20 recommendations in the panel’s just-released report. 

“Speculating on an appetite for change is beyond my scope on the commission,” Co-Chairman Robert Doar said.  

The commission calls for greater coordination among federal agencies and states to improve education in low-income schools and to develop innovative, realistic job-training programs for the unemployed poor that can lead to a job. 

Half the commission’s recommendations deal with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food benefits to 45.4 million people or 22.4 million households, according to the most recent monthly report.

In fiscal 2014, the federal government spent $103 billion on 15 food and nutrition programs. The commission says SNAP and child nutrition programs such as Women, Infants and Children and national school lunch and breakfast have put a dent in hunger. 

The report is a product of panel visits to eight cities where it held public hearings and took testimony from 80 experts and 102 members of the public. The commission focused on the 5.6 percent of households classified as having very low food security. These are the 17.2 million people who are often unsure if they will have food to eat. Despite the economic recovery, the share of households with low food security is higher than the pre-recession level of 4.1 percent in 2007. 

Doar and Co-Chairman Mariana Chilton are veterans of efforts to delve into poverty. Doar is a fellow on poverty at the American Enterprise Institute and a former commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration. Chilton is a Drexel University public health assistant professor and founder of the Witnesses to Hunger forum where low-income people testify before lawmakers and staffers on the strengths and weaknesses of social service programs. 

The commission found seven categories of people who seem at high risk for hunger: people aged 65 and older, single-parent families with young children, people with disabilities, veterans and active duty low-ranking enlisted military personnel, American Indians, legal and undocumented immigrants and people who have been to prison or jail. These groups are challenged by poor health, poor education, poor pay, unemployment and discrimination.

Doar and Chilton required a consensus among the panel’s nine members on each recommendation to give the proposals greater credibility, but two House Democrats say the panel did not go far enough.

Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, wished the commission had cast a wider net “to bring attention to the other 30.9 million Americans suffering from marginal food security. By doing so, we can better understand all of the nation’s hunger problems and the associated human, economic and fiscal costs.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., ranking member on the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, backed the commission’s call for a White House Leadership Council to End Hunger. He has unsuccessfully pressed the Obama administration to hold a White House conference on food, nutrition and hunger.

But McGovern said SNAP should focus on helping people feed themselves and their families. 

“SNAP cannot be expected to solve the broader economic challenges or barriers faced by people ready and willing to work so they can provide for their families,” McGovern said.

Among the SNAP recommendations, the commission calls for states that run the program to allow longer transition periods off the program for SNAP recipients whose work income exceeds income limits. The extended phase-out would give a worker more time to adjust to taking on food costs  covered by SNAP.

 A 2012 study of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans indicates 1 percent to 2 percent of active duty personnel and 7 percent of veterans are SNAP recipients. 

 The commission said Congress could help military personnel by changing SNAP eligibility requirements so that housing allowances paid for off-base housing are not treated as income. The allowance disqualifies otherwise eligible military families.

K. Michael Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he is interested in the extended phase-out proposal for SNAP recipients. But Conaway said costs for extensions in SNAP and other related programs would be a factor in whether Congress embraced the proposal.

“That’s going to be a consideration of how you make that work,” the Texas Republican said. 

But he said helping people get a solid start in the work world may overcome concerns about costs. “You also have to look at if it gets folks off the program permanently are you better off with that than having people yo-yo off and on,” Conaway said.  He said Congress might look at other programs with what he called “income cliffs” that trap people in programs.    

The panel also tackled the nutritional quality of foods available to SNAP recipients. The panel recommended the Agriculture Department should require retail stores participating in SNAP to stock and promote nutritious foods. The commission also called on Congress to ban certain sugary beverages from SNAP coverage after lawmakers consult with public health experts and nutritionists. 

If the recommendation advances, it will likely face opposition from the beverage industry and SNAP advocates concerned that it could open the door to more diet restrictions that treat the poor differently from more affluent people.    

Chilton said the commission zeroed in on sugary drinks because they disproportionately contribute to obesity and related chronic conditions such as diabetes. She said the commission’s proposal is grounded in findings on the health effects of sugar-sweetened drinks by the Institute of Medicine and the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office findings on the effects of sugar-sweetened beverages.

“In the public health world, we’ve been talking about this for some time,” she said.

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