When three square meals are a luxury

by Nov 25, 2015

We have found that people do not want to be on government assistance; they’re grateful that it’s there, but that is not their plan.
– Jacqueline Miller, President EHCC

By CHRISTOPHER ULLERY cullery@somdnews.com
Thanksgiving is a day to reflect on good things in life, a time to sit and eat with family and loved ones.
According to Feeding America, a nationwide organization fighting against hunger, an estimated 34,840 people in this area might not be as fortunate. For nearly 10 percent of residents across Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, food insecurity is a daily problem.
The Maryland Alliance for the Poor, a collection of nonprofit and faith-based organizations advocating for poverty issues, released its Maryland Poverty Profiles in 2014, which looked at various poverty statistics in each county of the state. In 2012, one in 10 Maryland residents lived in poverty despite its being one of the wealthiest states in the nation. Of those 572,400 people, 13.3 percent were children and 7.6 percent were seniors.
One of the biggest contributors to poverty in Maryland, and the nation, has been the everlasting effects caused by the 2008 recession. As many people’s incomes and futures became uncertain, a sharp rise in participation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program — or SNAP — was seen.
Between 2008 and 2013, Charles County saw a 103 percent rise in SNAP participation; the highest increase of any of the three counties. Calvert saw an 88.5 percent increase, and St. Mary’s had a 77.6 percent increase over the same time period.
SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, allots a monthly amount of money to help pay for food for people living at least 200 percent below the federal poverty line. In 2014, the average amount participants received in Southern Maryland was $127.39 — that’s $4.24 per day.
This is not a lot of money for food, especially when considering the average cost of a meal in the three counties comes out to about $3.10 per meal, according to the Feeding America data.
Fortunately for many families on SNAP benefits, most people receiving the benefits in Southern Maryland are working. According to a 2015 report released in March from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 85 percent of families receiving benefits had between one and two workers in the household in the past 12 months.
The report examines the entire 5th congressional district of Maryland, which includes parts of Prince George’s County along with Southern Maryland.
Of the 19,357 households receiving benefits in the district, 59.3 percent were households with children younger than 18, and 28.5 percent had one or more person 60 years or older.
And food insecurity is not unique to Southern Maryland. It’s an indiscriminate problem crossing racial barriers, ages and income levels. Only 35.7 percent of 5th district households fall below the federal poverty line, and the median income of participants is $34,332.
The unique problem in Southern Maryland is not related to the availability of programs for adults and children.
Calvert and Charles counties place first and second in the state for percentage of eligible people participating in supplement programs; St. Mary’s County placed sixth. Eligible people are participating in the SNAP program in Southern Maryland at higher rates than most places in the state.
While this high rank means residents in the area are getting more of the help they need, this also segues into the unique problem food insecure residents face in Southern Maryland: eligibility. The three counties of Southern Maryland are among the top 25 wealthiest counties in the nation, according to data from the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The issue in Southern Maryland for the food insecure is that SNAP uses federal poverty guidelines to determine eligibility. These guidelines are completely dependent on the size of the household, so the maximum amount a person can make before they are ineligible changes with household size. A single person ceases to be eligible for SNAP benefits for an income around $23,540 per year. A family of three could only make about $40,180 per year.
The added caveat is the more a participant makes, the less they are eligible to receive. The most a family of three can receive per month is $511 in benefits.
In Charles County, Feeding America estimates there are 16,970 food insecure people, both children and adults. Of those, 56 percent live in households making too much per year to be eligible for benefits. Calvert County has a lower food insecure population, about 7,360, but it also has a 56 percent ineligibility rate. In St. Mary’s County there are roughly 10,510 food insecure people and about 47 percent are ineligible.
The organization says it would take nearly $18.64 million in additional funding to close this gap in Southern Maryland. Fortunately for the remaining nearly 18,600 remaining food insecure residents, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of organization in the area willing to help offer food and other services when needed.
In Calvert County, the organization End Hunger In Calvert County works with 42 smaller organizations, food pantries and mobile food distribution sites, Jacqueline Miller, president of the organization, said in an interview. Most of the people the organization assists, Miller said, are the “working poor,” people working multiple jobs to support themselves and their families. “Because the cost of living in Calvert County is so high, they have a hard time making ends meet,” she said.
Miller said her organization, while focused on ending hunger, is primarily concerned with helping the poor in Calvert County become self-sustainable. “We have found that people do not want to be on government assistance; they’re grateful that it’s there, but that is not their plan,” she said.
The organization serves about 10,000 residents each year and was responsible for the distribution and management of 1.5 million tons of food last year.
Miller told the story of a client she had several years ago who was relocated from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The client’s husband had died not long before the storm and she found herself in a strange state with no job. At one point, the client found herself in the position of calculating in the benefits she was receiving in her job search.
Housing assistance programs and SNAP benefits go by a person’s gross income, and the benefits are calculated in to that number. Many recipients of both programs have seen one increase, causing the other to decrease. Sometimes, a job that can’t pay a living wage on its own could mean a significant cut in benefits.
Miller referred to it as “the cycle,” and it’s the main reason why her organization focuses on sustainability.
The government, she said, can only take care of so much. It’s the job of churches, nonprofits and other organizations to help with the rest.
Perhaps the scariest element for the food insecure is the uncertainty. Not just the uncertainty of knowing if there will be food to eat, but the uncertainty that the programs they rely on might not be available.
In late September, while there was a looming threat of a federal government shutdown, Maryland Hunger Solutions — a statewide organization assisting and advocating to end hunger in Maryland — sent out a release which stated the potential disastrous impacts the SNAP program could face.
If the government had not made a final action on funding by Sept. 30, SNAP benefits would have been delayed at least weeks.
There were 778,671 SNAP recipients in Maryland as of July 2015.