Appalachian Hunger Tour June 1-3, 2000 / 0426Andy Snow
Welfare as we knew it has ended. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 is the law of the land, but it is implemented differently in every state. That means that Ohio Works First, the state TANF program, has 88 different manifestations for each county's department of human services. While I support the principle that every person who can work, should work, we have gone too far and not far enough. The drive to cut the welfare rolls has produced an atmosphere where the poor are treated as criminals. One county director of human services was ashamed at the way the state is demonizing the poor, punishing them simply for asking for assistance. He was not surprised that people were unwilling to return to government offices for demeaning treatment and instead turning to food pantries.
I was disappointed in the private sector to hear that a company would fire an employee for attending a family member's funeral. But, I was outraged to hear that public assistance would be denied for such a cause. Another family lost its benefits because the father quit his job following the tragic death of their son in a school accident. In order to keep his family together in a time of overwhelming grief, he was cut off and now they have no income. While they are appealing the decision, their children suffer as they try to put food on the table.
I was appalled when the Darryl and Martha Wagner told me that they only qualify for $10 per month in food stamps. They were required to fill out a 700-question application, document everything, and return every three months to do it all over again. I heard other stories of those who were denied food stamps because their car's value was more than $4,650 and a car loan wasn't considered in discounting its value. In a rural area like Appalachia, workers need reliable transportation to get anywhere - to work, to day care, to the store. It was sad to learn that federal programs established to help people in need are too often failing to accomplish their purpose.
The limited number of people we met and places we visited does not paint a complete picture. It is a telling indicator of the nature of hunger in our country. Hunger is a hidden plague, but a real one. Those who are hungry rarely lobby for help or speak about their plight, too often they are ashamed and don't have the wherewithal to speak out. Hunger is hidden because the majority of Americans are comfortable and do not want to know about those in need. Policy makers and journalists, those who could make the biggest difference, are guilty of ignoring Americans who most need our attention.
Discussion and summary with Our Common Heritage
at AFSCME Union Hall,
June 3, 2000 Dayton, Ohio
1) Food banks and the front-line emergency food-providing agencies who are feeding hungry and poor people should be given the food and resources they need to address the increasing needs. With all the discussions of congregations and faith-based organizations caring for those in need, federal and state governments have failed to recognize and expand the support they provide to these charities. The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides government commodities for food banks to distribute through their networks; it should be immediately expanded. "Bonus commodities" should be increased to benefit farmers while also helping hungry Americans. Funds for administrative costs should be increased to cover the high distribution, storage and transportation costs. Additionally, the Commodity Supplemental Feeding Program (CSFP) desperately needs to be expanded to include more individuals and more states. It took Ohio more than ten years to gain admission into the program. Many more women, children and senior citizens would benefit tremendously from receiving a supplement to their monthly groceries.
2) The federal elderly nutrition programs are in sore need of attention. The Older Americans Act, which authorizes the Meals-on-Wheels and Congregate Meals programs, has not been reauthorized in more than seven years. We need to put these essential programs back on solid ground. Congress also needs to increase the meal reimbursement rate immediately. Despite a slight increase in funding over the past couple of years, the steep rise in demand for meals and their increasing cost of providing these services has hurt senior nutrition sponsors in their quest to provide nutritious meals to senior citizens. The current rate of USDA reimbursement is a shameful $.54 per meal, a drop of 35 percent in real value since 1993. This puts the organizations dedicated to serving our seniors in a precarious position and is an immoral policy toward "the Greatest Generation." Seniors can only hold so many bake sales to pay for these costs. These meals ultimately reduce the overall federal expenditures required for long-term nursing home care by helping our seniors to maintain independent living situations. As we know, nutrition is the cheapest form of medicine.
3) The food stamp program, America's first line of defense against widespread hunger, requires some essential changes. Some of these adjustments must be made on the federal level, but states already have the authority to make some of these improvements on their own.
· First, the vehicle allowance needs to be updated. Currently, if a food stamp recipient owns a car worth more than $4,650, his or her benefits will be slashed or revoked. In rural and suburban areas, reliable transportation is essential for people to get to work -- a requirement under welfare reform. The federal government should exempt the value of one vehicle from a family's asset limits.
· Second, the shelter cap deduction should be increased to permit food stamp recipients who spend more than 50 percent of their limited income on housing to deduct excessive costs when determining food stamp benefits.
· Third, Congress must adjust the food stamp level from the Thrifty Meal Plan, which pays just $.71 per meal on average, to the Moderate Meal Plan. This no longer reflects the true cost of feeding a family.
· Fourth, we need to guarantee a reasonable level of food stamp benefits, especially for the elderly and disabled. The minimum benefit level should be closer to $75 per person per month, not the current $10. It is ridiculous to put applicants through enormous hassle in exchange for only pennies a day.
· Fifth, the recertification process should be required once a year for those who are elderly or disabled living on fixed incomes. Working families should be recertified no more frequently than every six months, not every quarter. It is an extreme hardship for people who are working, disabled or elderly to go to an office every three months to provide additional documentation. The paperwork should be reduced and simplified to conform with other federal assistance programs. Ohio would greatly benefit from a universal application form, instead of the current 34-page, 700-question application.
· Sixth, food stamp benefits should be restored for all 18-50 year old unemployed adults without dependents, especially in regions of high unemployment. In this area of Appalachia where laborers have lost their lucrative jobs in coal mines or factories, they are now unable to access food stamp benefits.
· Finally, states need to do a much better job in assisting those who are eligible for food stamps to participate. During my visits, it was clear that states are not insuring those who are eligible are able to apply and participate in the program. While recognizing the need to reduce waste, fraud and abuse, those who apply for food stamps should not be made to feel like criminals or treated as less than human. These are people in need and should be treated with compassion and dignity. Office hours and procedures should be expanded to accommodate those who are working full-time or more than one job. It is apparent that states are overly focused on quality control compliance, instead of serving those who are categorically eligible for food stamps.
It is unconscionable that the richest country in the world's history cannot find the resources to feed its most vulnerable citizens. We find the money we need to pay for new weapons systems, tax cuts for those who are already wealthy, and everything else that we think is important. Congress has an obligation to include those in need in its focus. And all Americans have a responsibility to do what they can in the struggle to end hunger. I wish that I did not take this trip because there was no hunger in Appalachia or anywhere else in America. I wish that I did not have to focus so much of my time and energy on these humanitarian issues because there weren't any problems. I wish that we could declare hunger solved and move on to something else. But these are only wishes because hunger still stalks our proud land. Our economy and our promises are hollow. We must do better to care for the least of these among us.
For more information about Congressman Tony Hall visit his website at