For many Americans who are poor, life is a long road of one tribulation after another. It is not just the difficulty of acquiring food. A low-income American must in addition struggle to find adequate housing, appropriate health care, and affordable transportation, let alone more ephemeral goods such as a safe neighborhood, equal rights before the law, and the fundamental decency and respect that every one of us deserves as a human being.
Indeed, for many low-income Americans, access to enough food may not be the worst of that long list of tribulations. The real retail consumer price of food is lower in the contemporary United States than it is in other countries or at other times in our own history. The federal government serves low-income Americans with a national entitlement program for food, whereas there is no such national entitlement program for housing or other important and expensive basic needs.
I appreciate the spirit of the recent much-publicized effort of Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski to practice living on a tight budget, even as I must with a sigh quibble about the details. Kulongoski is trying to live on a food budget of $21 per week, which is described in an Associated Press article by Julia Silverman as "the same amount that the state's average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries." But the federal food stamp benefit is designed around a food budget of $155 monthly for a single person or $518 for a family of four. That is equivalent to $30 or $35 per week per person.
Kulongoski's much lower figure comes from the average food stamp benefit. The food stamp benefit formula provides the highest benefit amount to those with the least cash income, and lower benefit amounts to those with more cash income, so nobody -- even in government -- expects anybody to be able to afford enough food on the average food stamp benefit. The average amount that recipients spend on groceries, and the average amount that the Food Stamp Program is designed to support in the participant's budget, are both higher.
It's not an entirely harmless error. Some advocates for low-income Americans have been pushing hard for an increase in the food stamp benefit. But whose benefits should be increased? Should it be the destitute mother of three children, who currently has $518 monthly in food benefits but barely a dollar of cash income? Why doesn't somebody ask her whether she wants more food stamps or some other more general income support? Should it be the low-income working family or retiree, who currently lives at 130% of the poverty line? Certainly, such people don't get very generous food stamp benefits, but where is the progressivity in raising federal assistance for them without increasing cash income for the mother of three?
As a publicity event based on a misdiagnosis of the tribulations that low-income Americans face, the Oregon governor's exercise provides an unnecessary target for heartless critics. And perhaps it provides a reassuring picture of an easy remedy -- more food -- when we really have a bigger challenge to face in renewing our commitment to addressing poverty and offering equal economic opportunities to all Americans. That agenda starts with education reform and funding (such as this initiative in Massachusetts and similar efforts at the federal level). But, even in the food stamp policy arena, several priorities precede an increase in the benefit amount for current participants: increased outreach, program simplification, continued reductions in the paperwork burden of participating, improving the program's effectiveness in influencing nutrition quality and reducing hunger, and -- if there is an increase in the maximum benefit -- increasing the flexibility for participants to spend those resources on all of their basic needs as they see fit.
(Comments are open -- keep it polite but please feel free to disagree! See also Half Changed World and another old post. I'm glad to be back to writing here and regret ever pausing.)