Archive for July, 2009

This article highlights a very beneficial federal program that directly addresses poverty in a number of both expected and unexpected ways by simply helping low-income people buy nutritious food. It’s something HAWNY firmly supports and hopes to see expanded.

Boost in Food-Stamp Funding Percolates Through Economy

By Roger Thurow and Timothy W. Martin

DAVENPORT, Iowa — The lush red strawberries caught the attention of Rachel Patrick, a mother of five shopping at a farmers market along the Mississippi River here. She selected two cartons and ignited a little-noticed chain reaction that is an important part of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

Ms. Patrick handed a plastic card loaded with her monthly food-stamp allocation to farmer Ed Kraklio Jr., who swiped it through his electronic reader. Mr. Kraklio now regularly takes in several hundred dollars a month from food-stamp sales, a vital new revenue stream that has allowed him to hire another assistant to help tend a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. The new worker, in turn, spends her income in nearby stores, restaurants and gas stations.

Roger Thurow/The Wall Street Journal

An influx of stimulus cash into the food-stamp program has boosted business at Ed Kraklio’s stand at the Davenport, Iowa, farmers market.

The president’s stimulus plan has been aimed primarily at the top of the economy, pumping money into banks and car companies and state and city governments. But it also has put more money into the hands of the poorest Americans by boosting monthly food-stamp allocations. Starting in April, a family of four on food stamps received an average of $80 extra.

Money from the program — officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — percolates quickly through the economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates that for every $5 of food-stamp spending, there is $9.20 of total economic activity, as grocers and farmers pay their employees and suppliers, who in turn shop and pay their bills.

While other stimulus money has been slow to circulate, the food-stamp boost is almost immediate, with 80% of the benefits being redeemed within two weeks of receipt and 97% within a month, the USDA says.

The quick influx of cash into the economy reflects the often desperate situation faced by millions of households struggling to put enough food on the table. For many families, monthly food-stamp allotments rarely last more than a few weeks, leaving them with dwindling grocery supplies — and sometimes bare cupboards — by the end of the month.

Angie Minix rushes to her local Save-a-Lot grocery store on Chicago’s South Side at the start of every month, when her new food-stamp allocation appears on her card. So do many of her neighbors. “You can’t even get in the parking lot,” she says.

On a recent shopping trip, she headed straight to the fresh produce section. Before her increase in April to $606 from $525, Ms. Minix said she would rarely even troll the fresh-food aisles. Now, she talks about how she has introduced her two sons to cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce and cucumbers.

Employed by the state as a home aide, she has seen her hours cut and her mortgage payments rise. Still, the food-stamp boost has increased her purchasing power.

“I can’t buy a new car, but I can feed my family,” she says.

For years, the food-stamp program was plagued by criticism that it was an inefficient way to help the poor. Many who qualified wouldn’t apply because of a lack of information, daunting paperwork or the embarrassment of handing over stamps in a grocery checkout line. And it did little to increase access to more nutritional food, since fresh produce remained scarce in poor areas.

In recent years, though, registration has been streamlined; many food pantries offer information and direct sign-up services. The switch from stamps to plastic cards offers a cloak of anonymity. Meanwhile, more farmers markets offering fresh produce in urban areas have adopted the technology to accept the cards.

Nationwide, enrollment in the program surged in March to about 33.2 million people, up by nearly one million since January and by more than five million from March 2008. In a recent research report, Pali Capital Inc. estimated that food-stamp spending will increase between $10 billion and $12 billion this year from $34.6 billion in 2008.

For grocery stores and farmers markets, the added food-stamp revenue has helped offset slower sales to other consumers.

“When we look at the acceptance of food stamps, it becomes part of a larger and longer strategy to us,” says Ken Smith, chief financial officer of Family Dollar Stores Inc., a Charlotte, N.C., chain with 6,600 outlets in 44 states. A recent customer survey estimated that about 20% of Family Dollar customers receive food stamps.

In Chicago, where the number of households relying on food stamps is up 15% over a year ago, according to the Chicago Community Trust, food-stamp receipts are cushioning the blows of the recession. Without the food-stamp increases, “we would have been hurting more,” says Joe Garcia, controller at Moo & Oink Inc., a meat retailer with four stores in the Chicago area.

Farmers markets in Iowa have been particularly aggressive in courting the business of food-stamp recipients. At the Davenport market, food-stamp purchases have boosted business at Sawyer Beef. As farmer Norman Sawyer’s sales increase, he says he plans to buy more fencing and water tanks to improve grazing areas for his cattle. “This has been a good deal for us,” he says.

Write to Roger Thurow at roger.thurow@wsj.com and Timothy W. Martin at timothy.martin@wsj.com

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A11

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Rob Bennett for The New York Times

A recent article in the New York Times, “Summer Brings Wave of Homeless Families”, reports that city officials and service providers are anticipating a record “summer surge” in homeless families in the coming months.

The article follows the story of the Moldonado family who stayed in their apartment, despite harassment from their landlord, until their kids could finish school. Many other families either leave or are evicted from their homes when summer hits because landlords are more willing to evict families after school ends and families are more willing to leave once their children have finished school. These families understand the value of a good, steady education, and how important it is to getting out of poverty.

Another important homeless-related issue this summer was the passing of the HEARTH Act. This piece of legislation reauthorizes the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Programs that are administered by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

This year some important changes were made to the definition of homeless individuals, families, and children. Unfortunately the changes to the definition of what constitutes a homeless family continues to exclude large numbers of homeless families that do not fit into HUD’s confusing and arbitrary definitions.

The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) had this to say about the HEARTH Act:

Sadly, under S. 896, the legislation that the President will sign on May 20, most of these children and youth will remain invisible. S. 896 includes the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, which reauthorizes the HUD McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act programs (see summary, below). The HEARTH Act contains a definition of homelessness that imposes arbitrary timelines and conditions on people living in motels and doubled-up situations. It thus excludes most people in these situations from the HUD definition of homelessness, and ignores the impact of mobility on child and youth development. The Act also restricts the amount of money that communities can spend on some of the newly added categories of homeless families and youth, despite their desperate needs. It prohibits HUD from requiring communities to count these newly added homeless categories.

The NAEHCY statement goes on to say that there are some encouraging improvements in the reauthorization legislation including an increased emphasis on HUD cooperation with school districts to ensure quality educations for homeless students.

However the continued exclusion and marginalization of homeless families who do not fit HUD’s definitions will continue to impair any effort to address the rising numbers of homeless families across the nation.  It is critical that all families who could benefit from homeless assiticance funds have access to these monies to ensure that homeless children have the best chance possible to get a good education.

NAEHCY says it best:

As the economic downturn and housing crisis force ever more families from their homes, our nation must contend with the real scale of homelessness and with its unique impact on children, youth, and families. If we fail to do so, we will be creating future generations of homeless adults.

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Is Yahoo! a Fluke?

Recent articles in the Buffalo News demonstrate that the Buffalo-Niagara region has some very important resources that companies find desirable. They also indicate that with careful management these resources can be used to attract multiple kinds of industry to the area.

In “Yahoo! Decision to Build Here May Attract Others”, Sen. Schumer said that “[Yahoo!’s Lockport plant] is a beacon. The high-tech world pays attention to what Yahoo! does”.

Blaine Berger, president of a technology and site selection consulting firm, refined Schumer’s proposition saying that, “The Yahoo! announcement can serve as a beacon for other high-tech companies. But that depends entirely how the relevant economic development agencies capitalize on that announcement”.

Rep. Chris Lee identifies the need for local municipalities to take action, “We have people and we have power, and we need to take advantage of those. We have these lock, stock and barrel”.

And then Sen. Schumer alludes to the kind of action local municipalities must take, “If we all work together . . . we can get things done. We can swoop in like other states do and get them to come here.”

Of course cooperation and solidarity between local governments is completely necessary if the region hopes to bring more industry in. A splintered approach to economic development and planning will result in the haphazard sprawl that continues to hollow out the urban cores, further impoverishing urban residents and increasing their need and use of public resources (which contributes to the levels of taxation we currently [don’t] enjoy).

What is needed is planned economic development and requirements that industries taking advantage of public resources pay living wage jobs and supply training for the thousands of unemployed people in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Bringing in jobs that are accessible (both transportation and education-wise) and that pay enough for people to get out of poverty will (obviously) help end poverty here which in turn will make the Buffalo-Niagara region look more and more attractive for other companies.

To accomplish this the area needs a body that will coordinate and promote the area’s important resources. Unfortunately some local politicians refuse to cooperate with other municipalities and continue to endorse an ad- hoc, fractured approach to economic development.

Articles like “Solar Panel Maker gets Low-Cost Electricity” show that there are some very important resources in the area which can help drive some of the much vaunted green industry into the area. But without a regional plan, the area will continue to sprawl (a decidedly anti-green growth pattern), the urban dwellers will continue to be un(under)employed, and the full potential of all our local resources will never be attained.

Industry, green and not-green, will continue to view the area as just another fragmented rust-belt tragedy with no identifiable direction and will go elsewhere.  Those with control of our public and natural resources must be told that this mismanagement is unacceptable.

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