Friday, January 30, 2009

Let’s Not Let It Become “Yes, We Could Have”

President Barack Obama followed his historic inauguration on January 20th with quick action to “bail out” the many Americans who continue to suffer as a result of the economic recession.

On Wednesday, January 29th, the House approved an $819 billion economic recovery plan which includes, among other items, $20 billion over the next two years for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program).

As Joel Berg wrote in a recent op-ed entitled Progressives Should Stop Carping and Start Fighting, “As an anti-hunger advocate, I am overjoyed that the bill would provide the largest investment in new nutrition assistance funding in decades.” Directly addressing some progressive critics, Berg called for anti-hunger advocates of all political persuasions to support the bill’s funding levels.

So, what if the Congress finally passes the “Bailout for the Hungry.” Then what? Although the stimulus package is a promising first step, it will not end hunger. As Neil deMause recently wrote, “At his inauguration, Obama called on America not to shy away from ‘big plans.’ Fully funding food stamps would be a great start.”

In this historic moment of renewed energy and hope, we must commit to ending hunger: by advocating for changes in government policies, organizing, and engaging in long-term volunteer work. Promisingly, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s recent Sixth Annual Martin Luther King Serve-a-Thon brought out both elected officials and volunteers from all over New York in support of Dr. King’s other dream: ending poverty.

Said State Senator Liz Kruger, it is time to “renew our commitment to ending hunger” and to ensure that “in these troubled times … the government to help those who are most in need.”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ag Nominee Calls for “New Vision” to End Child Hunger

In Senate confirmation hearings on Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary-nominee Tom Vilsack promised to bring a “new vision” to the department of agriculture and vowed to prioritize initiatives that help families afford enough nutritious food.

“In a powerful, rich country, none of us should be satisfied that there are children going to bed hungry,” said Vilsack.

Vilsack noted that progress has already begun on President-elect Obama’s pledge to end child hunger by 2015. Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle recently met with Vilsack to discuss collaboration between the two departments, including work on programs that would increase children’s access to fresh fruit and vegetables and improve the quality of school meals.

“It’s going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children’s diets,” continued Vilsack. “That means supporting those who supply these products and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products.”

The Agriculture Department faces a hard year, with US agricultural exports expected to fall and the demand for emergency food continuing to rise. As Secretary, Vilsack would first be responsible for enacting the $290 billion Farm Bill, passed last year after months of debate and administrative delays. The Farm Bill included $289 billion in federal nutrition funding over the next ten years.

In addition to those fund, the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act could also provide critical funding to help Obama achieve his campaign pledge. The Reauthorization Act includes funding for free school meals and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides a first line of defense against child hunger. Vilsack and Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chair Tom Harkin emphasized the importance of the $15 billion Reauthorization Act for combating childhood hunger and obesity. The Food Research Action Center (FRAC) urged Vilsack and agricultural committee members to push for higher enrollment rates in child nutrition programs, especially free lunch programs, where enrollment has hovered at 50% of qualified recipients.

The Senate panel, including ranking Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, approved of Vilsack’s nomination. Vilsack’s fast-track nomination could be approved as early as January 20.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Reviving King's Dream to End Hunger

When Dr. Martin Luther King surveyed the state of American life over 40 years ago, he saw a nation fractured by racial inequalities and poverty. While Dr. King is often remembered as a civil rights leader who fought the oppressive racial divisions in the United States, history often overlooks King’s dedication to eradicating poverty and hunger, as evidenced in his Poor People’s Campaign. In addition to his “dream” of ending racial divisions, King also dreamt of the day that all Americans would have enough to eat.

The United States could have ended hunger in the 1960s and could end hunger today, says NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg. “Had America ever chosen to do so, it could have wiped out domestic poverty and hunger far more rapidly than it could have achieved King's goals of racial equality or world peace,” says Berg. President Johnson’s War on Poverty was the first federal campaign to seriously combat the causes of poverty, and it succeeded in cutting national poverty rates in half. The unprecedented campaign was a temporary victory for low-income Americans and the Johnson administration. But the War on Poverty lost political steam in the 1970s and, as a result, in 2007 there 14 million more Americans living under the poverty line than in 1973.

What we need now, says Berg, is not a recapitulation of old programs but a new, and creative political will to eliminate hunger and poverty: one that lends real weight to federal anti-poverty initiatives, and acknowledges the many parties responsible for moving those in poverty towards self-sufficiency. “Increased government support, economic growth, community involvement, and a focus on personal responsibility are all needed to solve the problem,” says Berg.

President-elect Obama vowed to end domestic child hunger by 2015 – a sign that there may be increased government support for ending hunger in our time. As citizens, it is our job to push the new administration to keep its promise to low-income Americans so that Dr. King’s dream of ending hunger can finally become a reality. Let’s think of it as our collective resolution for 2009.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Senate Ag Leaders Support Food Stamp Stimulus

Faced with a continuing recession and an uncertain economic future, Senate agricultural leaders have voiced their support for food stamp increases in the next stimulus package.

Following the lead of President-elect Obama and economic advisors on both sides of the aisle, Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) have called for a boost in food stamp allocations, which they believe will offer a swifter economic payoff than rebates issued in the last stimulus package.

According to a report by financial analysts at Goldman Sachs, every food stamp dollar spent generates $1.73 in economic activity, compared to a $1.26 rate of return on tax rebates.

In a December statement, Senator Harkin declared that food stamps would be central to the next Congressional stimulus plan. “We’ll have the votes,” said Harkin.

The timeline for a finalized stimulus plan remains unclear, as lawmakers continue to hammer out the details of tax breaks and focused spending increases. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has stated that the House will forgo its President’s Day recess if a stimulus package has not been drawn up by February 16.

Current estimates gauge spending for Obama’s proposed stimulus package at nearly $800 billion over the next two years.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Case Closed?

For the past decade, New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) has cited declining welfare rolls as proof that the City is effectively moving benefits recipients towards self-sufficiency. But the numbers tell a different story, say NYCCAH Executive Director Joel Berg and City Councilmember Bill de Blasio.

From November 2007 to 2008, the City’s welfare caseload dropped by 16,000 even as the number of people forced to use emergency food programs spiked and the number of homeless families reached a 25-year peak of 9,720. According to the city’s own data, unemployment rates also climbed by 25% percent last year, challenging HRA’s assertion that former welfare recipients have transitioned to long-term employment.

“Over the past few years – and especially during the current economic downturn –families removed from the welfare rolls are unable to find substantial work opportunities and are instead being pushed deeper into poverty and increasingly forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens. That’s not real welfare reform – that’s a counterproductive policy of punishing poor people for being poor,” said Berg.

In New York City there are two programs that compose what is commonly known as “welfare”: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Safety Net Assistance. TANF is intended to support families with young children or pregnant mothers with little or no income for up to five years and is provided by federal, state and local funds. Safety Net relies on state and local funding to provide extended benefits for those who have exceeded the time limit of TANF and can be renewed for up to two years.

Federal law requires states to place half of all TANF recipients in jobs or in employment-training. Following the federal tightening of work restrictions in 2006 and HRA’s creation of the Back to Work Program—a city-wide “work-fare” model whose proposed aim is to connect welfare recipients with long-term employment—advocates have questioned whether HRA’s employment programs are designed to serve clients or merely comply with the federal mandate. As jobs have been harder to find, government officials are questioning the efficiency of HRA’s “work-first” model.

“Until HRA provides people with real education and training opportunities that prepare them for living-wage jobs, we are just rearranging the deck chairs,” said de Blasio.

A recent report by Community Voices Heard (CVH), an organization of low-income welfare activists, found that only 9% of Back to Work clients found jobs through the program. CVH called on HRA to focus their employment efforts on the skills and interests of the individual client and work towards finding high-growth, living-wage jobs for benefits recipients in order to effectively transition clients to employment.

HRA continues to refute CVH’s findings, claiming that CVH data fails to take into account the many challenges that the department faces. Despite the possible veracity of HRA’s refute, however, until HRA complies with one of CVH’s further suggestions—greater administrative transparency—clients and advocates will continue to challenge HRA’s claims to effective welfare reform based on the status of those purged from the City’s welfare rolls.

Monday, January 05, 2009

State Emergency Food and SNAP Get Funding Boost

Following a year of unprecedented demand for emergency food, Governor David Paterson announced $1 million in new funding for regional food banks across the state. The funds are intended to provide stopgap support to struggling food programs ahead of 2009 budget funding, which goes into effect on April 1. Governor Paterson’s proposed budget includes a $4.4 million budget increase for emergency food programs in the coming year, despite Paterson’s slashing of state funds for soup kitchens and food pantries several times in 2008.

Paterson also announced an increase of over $364 million in federal funding for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly known as the food stamps program) in the next 15 months, in order to better serve the record 2.1 million New Yorkers receiving SNAP benefits.

Governor Paterson continues to push for the senate to pass the 2009 budget by March 1 (one month ahead of the usual deadline) in order to provide more immediately help vulnerable New Yorkers in these economically challenging times.

Said Governor Paterson, “by contributing to the overall health and well-being of society during this recession, we can also help generate increased activity in our State and national economy, placing New York on a path towards economic recovery.”

New York anti-hunger groups have consistently called on Paterson to increase state funding for emergency food throughout the current recession. It remains to be seen whether these funding increases can patch the holes left by Paterson’s cuts to the Hunger Prevention Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP) and other state funding programs.