Preventing harm on the road to ending hunger

An Oregonian woman using her electronic benefit transfer card to purchase food. Brian Duss for Bread for the World.

By Cynthia Woodside

Damage can happen in an instant. Repairs take more time. A break in a typical home water pipe can dump 50 gallons of water per minute into a basement, but fixing the pipe, draining the water, removing the damaged property, and making the basement livable again takes longer.

In addition to time and resources, it also requires an effective plan of action and a sustained commitment to repairing all the damage and restoring everything that was affected. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophe on a massive scale, much of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward has not recovered even after more than 10 years and billions of dollars in federal aid. The storm passed quickly, but if attention shifts from recovery before it’s complete, the damage may be permanent.

Public policy on hunger and poverty can be viewed the same way. Poor, uninformed policy choices can wreak immediate havoc in people’s lives and lead to longer-term, possibly irrevocable harm. Supplying remedies for the damage to individuals, families, and communities stemming from policy choices that may have been made literally overnight takes time, resources, and commitment.

January 2017 marked the beginning of the second year of the 2030 Agenda, adopted in 2015 by the United States and 192 other countries. The 2030 Agenda incorporates 17 economic, social, and environmental goals. These include ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition and ending extreme poverty. 2030 may sound far in the future, but 14 years can go by quickly. In order to realize the stronger, more equitable kind of country that the 2030 Agenda would create, the new 115th Congress and the incoming Trump administration must hit the ground running — and, of course, make smart policy choices based on credible research.

To do so, policymakers must recognize and appreciate two realities. The first reality: bad policies can destroy progress quickly and possibly permanently, while good policies take time to show the desired results. This means that first and foremost, Congress and the administration should ensure that they do no harm. Some policy proposals must therefore be rejected, because they would damage or destroy the social protections that we all rely on—particularly the 14 million people who currently live below the federal poverty line.

An important example is proposals to turn SNAP and/or Medicaid into a block grant. Such measures would jeopardize government’s ability to help people struggling to make ends meet, because under a block grant or similar structure, those in need can be turned away once a fixed amount of state or local funding has been exhausted.  

The second reality: the gulf between “winners” and “losers” has widened in the current economy — and is projected to continue to grow. Given this reality, the greatest obligation of today’s policymakers is to help compensate the losers. The immediate need is to build a stronger system of supports to help those left behind in the changing economic landscape — those who struggle to meet the basic human needs of food, shelter, and health care.

A priority for policymakers should be to focus public policy solutions and resources on areas of concentrated poverty, meaning areas where 20 percent or more of the population lives below the federal poverty line. Currently, a family of four that falls below the poverty line has an income of less than about $24,000 a year. Concentrated poverty is found in communities all over the country: Appalachian communities in Kentucky and North Carolina, former manufacturing communities in Michigan and Ohio, former mining communities in North Dakota and West Virginia, Native American communities in South Dakota and Alaska, Latino communities in Arizona and New Mexico, African American communities in Mississippi and South Carolina, and the list goes on.

It is harder for low-income people in these areas to climb out of poverty than it is for others, because their neighborhoods are more likely to have weaker schools, fewer job opportunities, less access to such amenities as supermarkets and libraries, and more risk of violent crime.

Thus, it is alarming that the likelihood that a person or family below the poverty line will live in a concentrated poverty community has increased significantly. In 2014, 55 percent of all people in poverty lived in such neighborhoods — up from 43.5 percent in 2000.

As we point out in the 2017 Hunger ReportFragile Environments, Resilient Communities, “Some small-scale demonstration projects have shown promise in these communities, but they come and go without being brought to scale. What is needed is a long-term commitment to resolve the many interconnected problems. To aggressively reduce the rate of concentrated poverty, policymakers will need to use all tools at their disposal.”

Here are some potential starting points:

  • Ensure that infrastructure or economic growth legislation puts vulnerable families and communities first.
  • Create a public jobs program focused on connecting workers who have barriers to employment with in-demand job skills.
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers.
  • Provide housing assistance to all families with incomes of less than 30 percent of area median income.
  • Identify and act on strategies to improve access to good schools, affordable health care, and asset and credit-building opportunities.

We urge the incoming administration and Congress to be guided by the two realities we’ve pointed out here — the wrong policy choices can cause immediate harm that is difficult or sometimes impossible to reverse, and there are an increasing number of people who are losing in today’s economy and deserve priority attention from our government. Taking these into account as the weeks and months pass will strengthen the chances of achieving the 2030 Agenda — which is really a synonym for the peaceful and prosperous country everyone deserves.

Cynthia Woodside is senior domestic policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute. 

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