Breaking the cycle: How some advocates want to change public food aid programs in Ohio
In February, a temporary boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ended. Some anti-hunger advocates fear this will push many households into a “hunger cliff," a situation in which families lose access to food assistance and are forced to make difficult choices about how to feed themselves. With so much focus on food insecurity after the pandemic, some advocates want to change how public assistance works.
One and a half million Ohioans receive SNAP benefits. Through the pandemic, Ohioans enrolled in the program received, on average, $90 more per person, per month. But that ended.
The loss removed about $126 million worth of SNAP dollars that were available to Ohioans, according to the Ohio Association of Food Banks.
Now, with the looming high cost of food, families on the program are back to benefits that sometimes weren’t enough even before the pandemic. Like for Hali McKee, a single mom of three living in Central Ohio. She said she often had to keep a close eye on what she picked out at the grocery store.
“I would have anxiety, like, am I going to be here for forever just trying to get things figured out. Go up to [the checkout line] and be like ‘Oh, that was more than I wanted to spend,' or 'Oh, I don't have enough to cover it.’ "McKee said.
McKee said before the pandemic she wasn’t able to work, which felt like a cycle she wasn’t able to get out of.
“I couldn't have a job because I didn't have childcare. I couldn't qualify for childcare because I didn't have a job. It was just like a cycle of kick downs.” McKee said.
Even if she got a job and made just a little too much money she could lose some or all of her benefits before making enough to sustain herself or her kids. McKee would experience what’s called the benefits cliff.
"It's just all this sort of fantasy stuff that just doesn't really exist and really sort of, I think, demonizes poor people,” Corlett said. “People who live in poverty are some of the most resourceful, smart people you'll ever meet,"
John Corlett, the executive director for the Center for Community Solutions, explains.
“Let's say you're offered a wage increase at work or maybe a promotion. Maybe you're offered a new job and maybe earn a little bit more, you know, for some of these programs, if you're just a dollar over, you lose everything,” Corlett said. “And so for a family that maybe has two or three kids, it's just really difficult.”
Corlett aid this issue is incredibly common.For example, if you’re a single parent of two making $13.85 an hour, you can receive SNAP benefits in the ballpark of $560 per month.
But if you take in just $1.90 an hour more you’ll be just slightly over the poverty threshold. In this scenario, you’d lose all of your SNAP benefits.
This year, a report published by the Ohio Workforce Coalition found if someone works full-time they can still be eligible for SNAP WIC, child care or Medicare.
For instance, about 32% of home health aides, which has the highest projected growth of all occupations in Ohio, receive SNAP benefits.
Alice Reznickova, with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said these anti-poverty programs work — but not equally for everyone.
“There’s something to say about the fact that people are concerned that at higher incomes they may be food insecure and not have access to these programs because we know that it's true. We know that people at higher incomes who do not have access to these programs are food insecure,” Reznickova said.
Corlett said fixing this requires people, especially policymakers, to change how they think about poor people.
“It's just all this sort of fantasy stuff that just doesn't really exist and really sort of, I think, demonizes poor people,” Corlett said. “People who live in poverty are some of the most resourceful, smart people you'll ever meet, because they have to be because they have to figure out how to make everything work.”
The Farm Bill is a massive bill package passed by Congress every five years — and it’s up for renewal this year. Three quarters of it funds food nutrition programs like SNAP and The Emergency Food Assistance Program — a program that supports food banks. Advocates want to see the income limit for SNAP go up, so more families qualify.
In Ohio, some groups want to see the state's earned income tax credit be refundable, which is a policy designed to offset some of the taxes low-income workers pay. Ohio is one of a handful of states where the credit is not refundable.
How it usually works is if a refundable credit exceeds a taxpayer’s state income tax, the taxpayer receives the excess amount as a payment from the state. A nonrefundable credit, like in Ohio, can only offset state income taxes.
Corlett said making the credit refundable requires no additional state spending and is the simplest way to address the impact of the benefit cliff.
There’s also the Benefit Bridge pilot program through Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services. It’s meant to support people while they get a better education or job, and eases them off of their benefits. It supports participants with job-coaching assistance and financial incentives benchmarked to employment goals.
It helped McKee get a job by paying for her housing, child care and transportation while she attended nursing school. She recently graduated with an LPN degree and is close to working full-time.
The 18-month program is being tested in 12 counties across Ohio, including Hamilton County. Groups want to see the state keep funding the program and expand it across all counties.
Reznickva said finding a long-term solution will require policymakers to think broadly about why people remain in poverty.
“You can still work full time every year and still be eligible for these benefits. And we should be asking why that is the case. Why do we have a living wage that effectively puts households into poverty?” Reznickva said.
Until that happens, millions in Ohio and across the country continue to rely on a system that may keep them from going up the economic ladder.
Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Support for WYSO's reporting on food and food insecurity in the Miami Valley comes from the CareSource Foundation.