Soaring interest rates on borrowing and sharp increases in food prices have become harsh realities for many Americans. While there is speculation about inflation easing, the stark reality is that millions of Americans grapple with food insecurity.
Many argue that the food system in the U.S. is fundamentally flawed. Despite boasting the world's largest gross domestic product (GDP), the nation remains plagued by rising rates of homelessness and hunger. Countless children go to school hungry every day, relying on free or reduced-price lunches, often their only nutritious meal of the day, before returning to homes lacking access to fresh, healthy food.
Two common approaches to combating social issues like food insecurity involve programs and policies. One such program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, while the policy in question is the Farm Bill.
SNAP serves as the first line of defense against hunger. However, the stigma associated with the program and misconceptions surrounding its benefits and accessibility have made it a target for some lawmakers and their constituents.
Systemic barriers restrict access to the program for those who need it most. For instance, while seemingly fair on the surface, the requirement to work a minimum of 20 hours per week fails to account for the realities of life experiences stemming from poverty, such as lower education levels and criminal history, factors that can significantly impact employability.
SNAP's modest benefits, amounting to essentially $2 per person per meal, are inadequate to cover the rising cost of food today. Nevertheless, it helps keep food on the table for families and supports small businesses like local farmers who grow and sell food to local markets, creating jobs in the community.
Critics of the program point to a perceived lack of personal responsibility among those in need as reasons to dismantle it. However, hunger is not a consequence of personal failings but a symptom of systemic injustice. Programs like SNAP should be more inclusive of the people they serve and not be subject to policy changes designed to cut government spending without addressing the underlying needs that necessitate these programs. Such changes are often based on harmful stereotypes.
Everyone feels the impact of an unhealthy food system. By actively informing Congress about the real-life struggles of those affected, we can collectively advocate for meaningful solutions.
In this episode of The New Mainstream podcast, Christina Wong, former Director of Public Policy & Advocacy at Northwest Harvest, shares insight into the Farm Bill’s SNAP provisions and the push for food equity.
Please Note: Christina Wong now serves as Vice President of Programs at Washington Conservation Action.
July is the most popular month for summer vacations. In fact, the busiest travel day of the year usually falls on a Friday in July. Navigating a vacation during these times can be difficult. Navigating a vacation with a child with special needs can be a daunting task. A recent experience at a family resort with my special needs son got me thinking that we've come a long way since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed (July 26th, 1990) in terms of wheelchair ramps and accessible rooms. However, there are still major gaps in services to meet the needs of the disabilities community.
ThinkNow regularly asks Americans with disabilities to share their personal experiences as part of our consumer research, so to mark Disability Pride Month, I'd like to share my personal experience on a recent vacation in the hopes that it will add to the conversation and help bring about positive change.
During our vacation, we learned that the resort offered a kids' play park where parents could drop off children between the ages of 4 and 11. However, the facility required children to be potty trained, which immediately excluded our non-verbal special needs son who cannot use the toilet independently. It was disheartening to realize that even in a seemingly inclusive environment, our child was left out of an activity others could enjoy.
As an alternative, the resort mentioned providing babysitting services. However, we discovered that the babysitters would not change diapers either. The arrangement involved having a stranger come to our hotel room to watch the children, which felt unsettling and raised concerns about their safety. Considering our child's non-verbal communication and unique needs, this option was impractical and imprudent.
In both instances, we encountered policies and limitations that may work for "typical" families but failed to accommodate families facing more complex situations. We were left to "figure it out" on our own, trying to find alternative solutions to ensure our child's safety and inclusion. This reality made us keenly aware of the lack of thought and consideration given to families like ours who simply want to enjoy a vacation without constant hurdles.
While many public parks now have ADA-compliant play equipment, this isn't always the case at resorts that cater to families with children. Children with disabilities may sit to the side as other kids use water slides and game areas that aren't set up to accommodate them. Another challenge is the noise and activity at resorts which can overwhelm some children with disabilities. For example, the pool areas that cater to families are often crowded and noisy. Many kids with special needs can become agitated and stressed out in this environment. Some resorts offer quieter adults-only pools, but those do not feel welcoming, so pool time will likely be cut short.
While I understand that not every resort can cater to the needs of children like mine, one would hope that as the travel and hospitality industry designs new properties, they would consider that accessibility is more than ramps and door widths. The goal is to use the same facilities that abled individuals do.
Vacation resorts have the opportunity to create genuinely inclusive environments by considering the diverse needs of families with disabled children. Here are a few suggestions to make vacation experiences more inviting for families like mine:
While vacation resorts have made strides in improving accessibility, there is room for improvement. There is a general expectation for families with special needs to conform to existing structures, rather than experience a sincere sense of welcome and accommodation. I hope the hospitality industry prioritizes creating inclusive environments moving forward by offering facilities for diverse disabilities, training compassionate staff, and developing customized childcare options. When resorts go beyond just focusing on physical infrastructure and take into account the unique challenges we face, they have the power to create vacation experiences that are inclusive and enjoyable for all families, regardless of their circumstances.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress added emergency funds to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help families facing food insecurity resulting from the economic slowdown. That emergency funding ran out at the end of February 2023. This means that around 30 million Americans will receive less money in their EBT cards at a time when inflation is wreaking havoc on food prices. The end of enhanced SNAP benefits is compounded by the concurrent end of other relief programs that helped with housing and healthcare costs.
Some states had already stopped the enhanced COVID benefits, but SNAP recipients in 32 states, Washington D.C., Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands will see their benefits reduced this month. The enhanced benefits gave participants the maximum allowable benefit if they qualified for SNAP. The change will bring participants back to amounts tied to household income and will average about $6 per day per person. The steepest decrease will hit individuals who, during COVID, qualified for the minimum SNAP benefit and were receiving $281 per month and will now only see a benefit of $23. Since the reductions are per person in the household, larger households will see bigger overall reductions. Seniors on Social Security may be surprised to learn that the recent 8.7% cost of living increase counts towards their SNAP eligibility and reduces benefits further. Sixty-five percent of SNAP participants are households with children and one in three food stamp households is headed by an African American. The reduction will, therefore, be disproportionately felt in low-income communities of color.
While the Biden administration is scheduled to declare the end of the COVID pandemic on May 11, 2023, the SNAP program expired on February 28th because Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act which revamped that program. Many recipients, however, are unaware of, or don’t understand, the changes they’ll see in their March benefits. The different deadlines for the end of COVID era benefits add to the confusion. This will likely lead to families being caught off-guard by the reductions, leaving them scrambling to fill the hole in their food budgets.
A 2019 study found that families whose SNAP benefits were reduced or cut off were more likely to experience food, healthcare and energy insecurity. Affected individuals must now turn to state and county agencies and nonprofits to make ends meet. Some states, like New Jersey, passed legislation to increase state-level food assistance, but most have not. This will force most affected individuals to lean on food banks already struggling due to the recent inflation-fueled rise in food costs and lower-than-expected donations.
Ideally, the SNAP reductions would have been made more gradually. That said, some steps should be taken to reduce the impact. The Federal Government has an opportunity to address SNAP benefits in the upcoming Farm Bill, and states that have yet to pass legislation to fill the shortage can either address food insecurity directly or consider how reduced SNAP funds are affecting household budgets when discussing housing and healthcare subsidies. Hunger and poor nutrition don’t exist in isolation, and there will be increased societal costs if they aren’t mitigated.
The plight of hungry Americans isn’t always visible to those in a position to help. In addition to passing emergency funding, there needs to be increased awareness of the problem among Americans who may be able to donate to their local food banks and among businesses who can direct their 2023 charitable giving to non-profits tackling hunger.
State and federal agencies should also better communicate available services to people in need through outdoor, online, radio and television PSAs. There is a silver lining in that the Consolidated Appropriations Act added funds for summer nutrition to the National School Lunch Program. Vulnerable kids will at least be able to rely on those meals. Ideally, seniors and others affected will also get the help they need.
The United States is facing a demographics crisis. Simply put, we’re getting old. The average American is ten years older than average Americans were in 1970. We’re aging as a nation because we’re not having babies at the replacement level of 2.1 children per couple. The ratio varies considerably by race, but even Hispanics who were having 2.35 children per couple in 2010 now have only 1.88. Non-Hispanic Whites are averaging 1.55. If we close the borders and continue along this path, there will eventually be too many people over age 65 for the working population to support. Click To Tweet The obvious solution is to have more children, but convincing people to have babies isn't easy. Japan and South Korea pay people to have children, yet their birth rates are still just 1.3 and .81, respectively.
In addition to having too high a ratio of older people to support, there are other problems associated with an aging population. Increased healthcare expenses and a shortage of healthcare workers are already a problem, and the economy will have difficulty growing with a shrinking population. As American companies increasingly find it challenging to fill positions, they will start filling them overseas through remote work and physically moving offices and factories.
So, what’s the answer? Immigration. In the late 1800s, the percentage of foreign-born people in the U.S. hit a high of around 15%. It’s currently about 14.6%. The immigration boom happening at the Southern Border is real. It’s also a good thing. Letting people who want to work in the country and allowing them to support our aging population with their payroll and sales taxes is the easiest way for Millennials and Gen Z to have the benefits of Social Security and Medicare available for them when they retire.
The U.S. is fortunate in that it is still able to attract immigrants. Some countries in Eastern Europe have lost as much as 26% of their population since the early ’90s. Our overall population is not yet decreasing, but for the first time in American history, the population of non-Hispanic Whites shrank from 197 million in 2010 to 193 million in 2021. If it were not for minority births and immigration, the U.S., too, would be shrinking.
Increasing Immigration, however, has the support of only 27% of Americans, whereas decreasing it is supported by 38%. Most people who say they don’t support increased immigration say it’s because of the economic costs associated with absorbing new immigrants. Economically, however, having young people move here and have children is a bargain. Immigrants are younger and healthier than the general population and thus contribute far more economically to the U.S. than they take. Even low-wage immigrants with low levels of education help our economy. Industries like agriculture, construction and apparel would lose a third of their workforces without immigration. The lack of workers to fill entry level, low skilled jobs is also fueling inflation.
Most demographers and business leaders believe immigration is a net good for the country. Click To Tweet The political right doesn’t agree. In Europe, countries with right-wing governments and the most significant population declines tend to be most fervently anti-immigration. In the U.S., the political right gets much of its support from rural districts experiencing job losses due to globalization and urbanization. In these areas, immigrants are viewed as a threat to jobs. Interestingly, immigrants are saving jobs in rural districts by filling low-wage agricultural jobs that native-born residents don’t want to fill. If this flow of workers were to be stopped, farmers would have to grow fewer labor-intensive crops like fruits and vegetables and raise fewer farm animals due to the lack of workers.
Not all conservative areas are against immigration. States like Michigan and Ohio with older industrial cities, are actively recruiting immigrants to fill jobs and contribute to their tax bases. Republican Senators like Marco Rubio and Republican members of Congress who represent high-immigration districts in California, Texas and South Florida are generally pro-immigration because they see how immigrants contribute to their communities firsthand. Once people get to know individual immigrants, their views tend to become more accepting.
Unfortunately, we don’t often hear politicians on the left or right sing the praises of immigration. Even pro-immigration Democrats often talk about securing the border first before addressing immigration. This feeds the notion that the U.S. is somehow under attack by immigrants. The reason we have high levels of illegal immigration is that the legal immigration system is broken. We can’t even agree to give DACA recipients – immigrants brought here as children – permanent residency. Instead, we force foreigners who earn U.S. college degrees to leave the country after they graduate.
Speaking up about the benefits of immigration and having positive interactions with immigrants can slowly shift public perception. Click To Tweet ThinkNow was founded by an immigrant and the son of an immigrant. We’ve created jobs for native-born Americans in California, Indiana, Wisconsin, Georgia, Connecticut, and Nevada. Welcoming the next generation of immigrants to the country will ensure our children and grandchildren have access to the American Dream we’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced.
Gun violence in the U.S. is an intractable problem. A steady stream of mass shootings and increasing homicide rates do not appear to be motivating politicians to enact meaningful gun control laws. The recently passed bipartisan Safer Communities Act does little to solve the problem. Its provisions are so weak that few gun control advocates believe it will significantly impact U.S. gun-related deaths.
Democratic and Republican politicians have shied away from the problem because of the potential for electoral backlash. While more amenable to gun control, Democrats often attribute their loss of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 after four decades in power as a consequence of their passage of an assault weapons ban earlier that year. This led to years of anemic Democratic support for gun control while Republicans pushed to loosen gun laws under pressure from the NRA.
Weak Democratic support and Republican antipathy towards gun control has worked politically, but it appears the electorate is shifting its opinion on this issue. ThinkNow recently collaborated with Team Friday to field a nationally representative survey of 1,200 registered voters and found that 66% believe the U.S. needs stricter gun laws. Our survey results match those released by Gallup earlier this year which also found that 66% of respondents want more stringent gun laws, up from a low of 44% in 2010.
According to our data, party affiliation strongly indicates whether a respondent supports gun control. Eighty-six percent of Democratic voters, 41% of Republicans, and 69% of Independents stated that gun laws should be stricter. While 41% Republican support might seem low, it’s an improvement over the past couple of years which measured their support in the low 20s.
This shift in Republican support could have implications in Texas and Florida where a clear majority of the electorate support stricter gun laws while their legislators are actively loosening them.
More interestingly, we found that gun owners, themselves, support stricter gun laws.
While there are differences in opinion based on party affiliation, we found there are four reforms that Americans across the political spectrum can get behind. Universal background checks, red-flag laws, raising the gun buying age to 21 and permits for concealed carry all garner more than 50% support among Americans that want stricter gun laws.
Politicians in Red (leans toward Republicans) or Purple States (similar support for Democrats and Republicans) who are interested in addressing the gun problem can presumably support the four measures above without the risk of electoral backlash.
At 74%, the primary reason Americans state for buying guns is to protect their home. No other reason exceeds 50%. This would suggest that gun legislation that does not infringe on individuals’ right to protect their home has a lower chance of creating voter backlash.
Interestingly, a policy that does not have overwhelming support, even among Democrats is allowing individuals to sue gun manufacturers.
It’s possible that Americans don’t support suing manufacturers because they fear this will put them out of business and restrict their access to guns for home protection.
It’s often assumed that gun rights and gun regulations are mutually exclusive. That’s not true. Clear majorities of Americans that support gun rights want better regulation. Americans, in general, are tired of the carnage and want something done about it. In 2020, voters listed attitudes towards guns laws as one of the reasons they were voting for president. Unfortunately, the problem has only gotten worse since then. Politicians who respond to this crisis can lead the nation to a future where mass shootings and unprovoked gun deaths are a thing of the past. Those interested in maintaining the status quo may find themselves without a constituency.
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