Ohio Children are Hungry – Work Requirements and Other Barriers are Not the Answer

February 8, 2021 | Ohio

Ohio Children are Hungry – Work Requirements and Other Barriers are Not the Answer

February 8, 2021

By Alex F. Coccia, D.Phil., Policy Consultant

The wealthiest nation in the world should not have a hunger crisis – and yet, more than one in four children in Ohio (27.1%) will live in food insecure households (up from 18.9% in 2018).   For Black, Latino, and Indigenous children, food insecurity is even more prevalent.

The structural racism driving persistent inequities in income, education, medical care, employment, and housing also creates policy and program barriers for families of color to meet the nutritional needs of their children.  According to the Census Bureau’s most recent survey, Black and Latino adults were more than twice as likely as White adults to report that their household did not get enough to eat (19 percent and 21, respectively, compared to 8).

As I wrote about previously, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the most effective safety-net programs at reaching eligible people, providing access to nutritious meals that are unaffordable for many families, and alleviating the most extreme poverty and hunger.  It is a lifeline for children in Ohio, where 40.3% of households receiving SNAP benefits have children.   Political scientist Linda Williams found that the Food Stamp Program (renamed SNAP in 2008) greatly contributed to reducing hunger and malnutrition for Americans in poverty, and had far-reaching impacts for the health of Black Americans, drastically reducing both infant mortality and malnutrition rates within five years of its implementation.  The program is also a boon to the economy with the over $2 billion distributed through SNAP to Ohioans generating over $3.4 billion in economic activity.

However, the benefits themselves still do not meet the full nutritional needs of families.  In fact, the Urban Institute found that the SNAP per meal benefit in 2018 failed to cover a low-cost meal in 99% of U.S.  continental counties and Washington, DC.  Foodbanks attempt to fill those gaps; nevertheless, the increase in need has been stark.  The Mid-Ohio Food Collective, which serves 20 counties, including Franklin, received over 1 million visits between March 1st and December 31st in 2020, representing 180,977 unique families.  This is an increase from 951,735 total visits representing 158,144 unique families in 2019.   Over 18,000 of the new unique families are from Franklin County alone.

SNAP continues to be key in supporting historically underserved communities.  For Black History Month, and every month for that matter, we must not only see and hear the concerns of Black and Brown communities, we must also take concrete actions to redress the economic and racial injustice that has caused them to experience the violence of poverty for generations.  We can build on our history of anti-poverty programs to ensure they effectively target and address the unmet needs of children and communities of color.   This means securing robust assistance policies like SNAP and strongly rejecting any rules and regulations that, grounded in systemic racism, dilute the efficacy and promise of these programs.

Work requirements are premised on racist stereotypes and have been used throughout the history of public assistance programs as ways to coerce a low-wage workforce, reinforce the economic and political power of White Americans, deny benefit access to Black Americans, devalue care-work, and ensure public assistance systems fail to meet the needs of families and children.   Placing work requirements on essential programs like SNAP deny families living in poverty the ability to feed their families.

While the racist roots of work requirements have been obscured through color-blind language, recent years have made clear the damage that can be done by ostensibly “colorblind policies.”  For example, in 2017, Ohio Governor Kasich exempted twenty-six counties from the SNAP work requirement because of “insufficient jobs” or a 24-month unemployment rate at least 20% above the national average.  However, 97% of Ohio families in exempted counties were White.  In total, 5% of the state’s Black population and 15% of the White population were included in exempt counties.  Residents of counties like Cuyahoga and Lucas, which have large unemployment numbers within the city centers and have large non-White populations, were not exempt until amendments to the FY2019 budget.   Prior to the pandemic, Ohio put forward a plan that would reduce the exempted counties from 42 to 13, causing 20,000 Ohioans to lose benefits.   Such a change would have also adversely affected the Medicaid expansion population in counties that are no longer exempt, despite being areas where economic growth and job creation are lagging.

The debate on work requirements is far from over – in fact, Ohio’s own Senate Bill 17 being heard this week in the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee threatens to impose work requirements and other restrictions on access to Medicaid and SNAP when Ohioans need these programs now more than ever.

The American Rescue Plan proposed by President Biden aims to address this growing hunger crisis, in part by extending a 15% increase in benefits through the summer and providing direct relief to states for administrative support so that benefits quickly get to those who need them.  The plan is also focused on direct efforts to reduce child poverty through a fully refundable Child Tax Credit valued at $3,000 (ages 6-17) and $3,600 (under 6).   Researchers at Columbia University estimate that the Plan as a whole, including the SNAP extensions and tax credits, would cut child poverty by half.

These efforts could be pushed even further to ensure that no child goes hungry or lives in poverty.   Just this week, Nicholas Kristof made the urgency clear: “We are a nation of child abusers.” With higher rates of child poverty than any other advanced country in the world, and with disproportionately high rates of child hunger and poverty among Black children, we must do better to ensure racial and economic justice for our children.