The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient numbers are fairly clear—there are across the board increases, both nationwide and in Connecticut. The number of households receiving SNAP assistance in the state has more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, and the trend line shows no signs of slowing down.
The increase for Child recipients has been more modest, climbing 18% from 110,374 to 131,130. The largest increases have been in mostly rural counties, specially in Tolland (74%) and Litchfield (51%) Counties. Of the urban areas, Fairfield County (26%) saw the largest increase.
It would be easy to blame the increase on the great recession, slow economic growth and unemployment. A big part of this big jump on caseload, however, isn’t from more people falling into poverty, but from expanded eligibility within the program. In 2009, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA – the stimulus bill) gave states the opportunity raise the income limit for SNAP benefits from 135% of the Federal Poverty Line to 185%. This increased the number of SNAP eligible individuals in Connecticut by more than 200,000, opening the doors to the program to more families in need.
Although the Department of Social Services has struggled to cope with the additional demand, the SNAP program has actually worked as intended, serving as a critical piece of the nation’s safety net and proving a crucial income support on trying times.
Edit: the Kids Count CT event has been postponed. We will announce the new date in the coming days.
At CAHS we delve with data quite often (maybe less than our friends at CT Voices, but we do love numbers nonetheless) so the sudden twists and turns of Connecticut´s jobless rate obviously picked our interest. It turns out that the initial report from the department of labor was "wrong", and that the state did not stagnate with 100 jobs lost in 2012, but actually had some decent growth, with 8,600 jobs created instead. The revisions go all the way to 2011, with the state adding almost twice the amount of jobs initially reported.
Why these changes? Are not the unemployment figures fixed in time and readily available? Well, to tell the truth, they really are not. These figures come from a (very) large survey that is sent every month to tens of thousands businesses across the country. This means that the initial number that we get every month it is likely wrong, and usually is revised several times in the following reports, as the Department of Labor get more data and can update their estimates.
The sample for Connecticut is, obviously, a subset of the larger Federal one, and as a result it is much noisier. If say 10% of businesses survey fail to report on time, close or move to a new address in the sample for the whole country, the effect is there, but it is small. If that happens in Connecticut, the drop might be enough to move the numbers pretty wildly. To this we have to add the fact that new companies are never surveyed, as the department of labor really only updates their panel once a year, and only adds businesses that are more than one year old, and you have the recipe for occasional underestimates and large revisions down the road. Something similar happens during downturns, as companies that close sometimes are mistaken as simply failing to fill their surveys on time. Don´t get me started trying to explain how job creation and unemployment rates are estimated using two different surveys (the former to business, the later to individuals) or we could be here all day.
So no, the governor is not making up the numbers, and the Department of Labor is not run but people that can´t do math. Compiling good data for a country as large as the United States is extremely difficult, and Federal agencies, believe it or not, are exceptionally good at their jobs in this regard.
Of all the bizarre political celebrities of recent years, none was closer to the truth than Jimmy McMillan. In a memorable tirade in an otherwise unremarkable New York gubernatorial debate, McMillan ranted against the high cost of housing. Understandable, as he headed "The rent is too damm high party", even if it felt a bit out of place.
Remarkably, he had a point: housing in NYC is indeed really expensive, to the point of being unaffordable for most low income families. This problem, however, is not limited to New York; Connecticut, in fact, faces a similar challenge. According to a data analysis from the Working Poor Families Project (generated by Population Reference Bureau from the American Community Survey) , Connecticut has, indeed, very expensive rents and housing:
- 47% of renters in the state pay more than 30% of their income to cover rent and utilities - with the state being the 8th most expensive in the country in this regard.
- For poor and low income families, the situation is even worse. 90.3% of poor families pay more than a third of they household income in shelter expenses. 76.4% of low income families face the same challenge. Only New Jersey is even less affordable than Connecticut in this regard.
The economic effects of these numbers go beyond the hardship they inflict on low income families. Matthew Yglesias has pointed out that high housing costs work as an entry barrier for economic development, as they tend to increase the cost of doing business in the state. They are also sign, as well, that the demand for housing in Connecticut is extraordinarily high: a lot of people want to live in the state, and they are willing to pay a premium to enjoy living in quaint New England towns with excellent services, access to high paying jobs and top higher education research centers.
The takeaway, however, when thinking about this issue, is that we have the technology and resources to solve our housing crisis. It will take some effort, by we can have immediate progress in 2-3 years if we start acting now, improving access to housing for needy families, lowering the cost of doing business and attracting young professionals and families that are now being priced out of the state. We can just build more houses where there is demand for them, instead of zoning them out - not just low income housing on the inner cities, but mixed income housing on the suburbs and the nice neighborhoods of our cities as well, like East Rock or Black Rock.
Admittedly, anyone that has dealt with a zoning board knows it is not that easy, but in any case housing policy in Connecticut needs to start taking into account both the hardship it generates and the bottleneck for growth it has become. People want to live in the state; that´s why housing is expensive. We need to have more of it.
A big headline fronts a great article on the Connecticut Healty-I-Team website today : "Childhood Hunger Rises Even In Wealthy, Rural Towns".
This is the sad reality in many communities in Connecticut in the past few years. The long recession, followed by years of sluggish, anemic growth, has dramatically increased the number of kids that go to bed hungry every day in the state. The numbers are downright shocking:
Thirty-four percent of all students in Connecticut’s public school districts were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch during the 2010-11 school year, up from 26.4 percent during the 2004-05 school year, according to Connecticut Department of Education statistics.
Urban areas account for a large proportion of those in need. In Bridgeport, for example, 98.8 percent of the student body is eligible for free and reduced-priced meals. But rural and suburban communities are impacted, too. The number of eligible students from affluent towns such as Glastonbury (498) and Westport (173), for instance, has more than doubled. Other towns, such as Avon (190), have seen a threefold increase, the state numbers show.
Where we Live, on WNPR, talked with Magaly Olivero, the author of the article, extensively today, as well as with Lucy Nollan, Susan Maffee and Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba. Subsidized lunch and free school breakfast programs have proven effective to at least partially address childhood hunger in the state, but they are only a partial solution. Only families below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level ( less than $34,350 a year for a family of three) are eligible for this programs.
Childhood poverty is getting worse in Connecticut. Although our safety net has been effective protecting those in need, we need to do more to avoid having more and more people fall through the cracks.
CAHS is always interested in the potential for CT to improve outcomes, and to better offer services that advance our mission of ending poverty by empowering, equipping and engaging people to build a secure future.
Given the ever-increasing state budget shortfall, one area we are looking at is innovative financing methods such as Social Impact Bonds, or SIBs.
SIBs are generating a lot of enthusiasm for their ability to generate private investment in public services, and to bring a new emphasis to both accountability and population-level results. They were piloted in England where they have been in use for a couple of years to fund services to reduce prisoner recidivism.
The concept is that private investors fund programming that will save society money, and they get back their money, and a profit, if and when their services produce the agreed-upon result – say, reduction in prisoners going back to jail. This offers the opportunity to offer needed services, gauge results based on population-level impact, break down the silos that divide and fracture programming, and allow funding to be combined over multiple years.
In the US, New York City has recently begun a program, funded by Mayor Bloomberg, and Massachusetts has just awarded two grants for SIBs to address chronic homelessness and juvenile recidivism. In CT, the Department of Correction applied to the US Department of Justice to use SIBs for programming to reduce prisoner recidivism in Bridgeport and Waterbury. That grant was not awarded, but interest remains.
There are other new and innovative ways of financing generating similar interest. One intriguing model model is Human Capital Performance Bonds in Minnesota.
CAHS is working with the Capital Region Council of Governments and Community Impact Strategies to host informational conference December 4. These and other models will be explored and you'll have the opportunity to ask questions of the people using these models in Massachusetts.
Some are concerned, and say these new financing methods would lead to undue profit for the private sector, or letting the state walk away from its obligation to fund human services.
Certainly, caution and oversight is warranted and needed. The incentives need to be carefully crafted and reflect the public interest.
But they offer the chance for our systems to recognize the value added by preventative services - the return on investment when we provide effective preventative services that prevent future increased costs to the state.
The Minnesota pilot identifies these goals:
"....using bonds to finance social services is an implicit recognition by the state that benefits often accrue over a number of years. (emphasis mine)
"For example, we don’t educate 5-year-olds because we hope they’ll be contributing members of society by the time they are 7. Currently the state tends to underinvest in social services, because budgeting rules recognize payback periods of only two to four years.
"Second, budgeting tends to take place inside strict silos, carefully guarded by state agencies. But as the work-force training example showed, costs and benefits are spread over many agencies. The Department of Employment and Economic Development pays for the services. The Departments of Human Services and Corrections see reductions in spending as a result. And the state’s coffers grow from increased tax revenue.
"Human Capital Performance Bonds provide a way of accounting for these costs and benefits. For the first time, the budgets of disparate state agencies will be considered from a single point of view — service providers’ impact on those budgets — and adjusted accordingly. This will help public agencies see and act upon the bigger-picture impact of human services.
"Finally, the focus shifts from activity to outcomes. How can we identify and fund those services that contribute to the health of our communities over the long run? Government budgets are notorious for funding activities (i.e., seat time for school children) rather than outcomes (how much they learned)."
Stay tuned for more news about the December 4 informational conference.
The New York Times had a very interesting article yesterday talking about something that looks fairly irrelevant: are health care benefits income?
In July, the Congressional Budget Office — the nonpartisan arbiter of the costs and consequences of government spending — decided that we had not been valuing these benefits enough. In a report on how income and taxes are distributedacross the population, it decided, for the first time, to value health benefits provided by the government at every penny they cost.
The decision stoked a long-simmering debate about how much health care is really worth to poor families who may not have enough to eat. The reclassification of health benefits added $4,600 a year to households in the bottom fifth of income. It shrank the nation’s yawning income gap and muted the increase of inequality over the last three decades. And it changed the picture of what the government does for Americans.
The article has a good discussion on this specific debate, and how it affects official poverty numbers in the US. For instance, many seniors and very low income families now considered poor would move out of these categories, while working families would actually move much closer to the bottom of the income scale.
I largely agree with the CBO with this new calculation – both from a statistical point of view and a political point of view.
For statistics, one very simple reason: that’s how it is usually counted elsewhere in the world. OECD numbers count health care as a fiscal transfer, and it makes sense for the CBO to do the same. After all, it is real money that the government is spending in a real good; if instead of SNAP we had government run soup kitchens it would still be seen as an almost-cash transfer, and this works the same way.
From a political point of view, this change makes clear that the government is very effective getting people out of deep poverty. It really is! There are many, many people in the US and elsewhere that would be much worse off if the Federal government was not around. Medicare has been extremely effective keeping seniors out of poverty, but the numbers barely reflect that.
The new calculation method also makes more clear a big issue with the US safety net and its over-reliance in means tested programs: the huge, crippling fiscal cliff that poor families face when their income starts to slowly creep up towards the middle class. We wrote about this with some detail a few weeks ago, but it is important to keep this in mind. The marginal tax rate of a family moving from 100-125% Federal Poverty Level (FPL) to 185-200% FPL is absurdly high if we take into account benefits loss. "Earning yourself out" of Medicaid / Husky is often a huge blow for a family that lacks health insurance and now has to pay full price for it.
Leaving that aside, the big problem, and something that the revised numbers make more clear, is that right now the US welfare system is pretty terrible moving people from not-so-terrible poverty to self sufficiency. But income mobility and pathways to success deserve their own blog post.