If you thought that by now we’ve covered all the opportunities for hunger-fighting groups to pick up massive efficiencies, we have a surprise for you. In a vast majority of states just doing what is recommended in this chapter by itself could end hunger.
All levels of government are ultimately concerned with the well being of the people they were elected, appointed or hired to serve. So every level of government to some degree offers some level of assistance to people who are experiencing difficulties. The most well known of those forms of aid in this country are the Food Stamp Program, unemployment insurance, the Women, Infants and Children’s program (WIC), workers compensation and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). But those are only the tip of the iceberg. Less well known are a host of additional federal, state and local assistance programs, usually administered by units of government, but sometimes also available through nonprofit groups deputized to provide specific services.
Available help is going unused
The bottom line is that there is a lot of government help out there available to people who need it, but most of the people who need it never access it because they don’t know about it. And in lieu of getting that government help they will suffer much more than they need to or they will tap local charity resources much more than could or should be the case.
This is huge! Every year in the United States billions of dollars worth of readily available government aid goes untapped because people who need it and qualify for it don’t apply for it.
This results in at least three very negative outcomes:
1 It subjects those households to forms and degrees of suffering beyond what could or should have been the case. They need help. Help is available. They qualify for it. But they don’t get it because they don’t know about it or don’t know how or where to apply, or don’t realize that they could qualify for it, or can’t get to where one needs to go to apply for it, or need help filling out the application or some other reason. They might find and tap into some local charity resources, which might somewhat compensate for not getting the government help, but only rarely will that local charity aid equal or surpass the amount of aid the government would have provided. To the extent that that difference in aid levels results in their having unmet needs, the suffering they experience is totally unnecessary.
2 It places a lot of extra stress on local charity programs that are pressed to compensate for aid that people don’t get from government sources. For example, in a community of 30,000 people with a poverty rate of about 12 percent, it is likely that at least 5000 people would qualify for about $70 per month in food stamp assistance. But it is even more likely that only about half of them will receive that help. That works out to $2.1 million per year ($70 x 2500 x 12) in needed aid that the government can provide but charity agencies struggle to provide instead. This is crazy! Charity agencies should only be trying to cover what the government won’t cover and not be beating ourselves to death trying to replace the government, particularly since our doing so can hurt the local economy.
3 It hurts the local economy by not drawing into local commerce the federal and state resources that could have been drawn in. As in the above example, an additional $2.1 million in the local economy has about the same impact as does having 70 area families get $30,000 per year jobs! That is a lot of extra buying power that will show up in local stores and restaurants, likely creating enough additional economic activity to create a number of new jobs. It is like a vitamin or booster shot. It puts extra resources in circulation in the local economy just as tourism or a festival that draws in lots of outsiders might. And if you add up all the resources that can be drawn in by getting to everyone who is eligible for help, the dollar amounts are astounding. It could well revive a failing community or neighborhood. Appendix 1 plots out for all 50 states and the District of Columbia an estimate of how much food aid needed, per our formula in Chapter Two, what percentage of eligible people are getting food stamps, how many eligible people aren’t getting food stamps and how many dollars worth of aid that could be coming into the state that isn’t being drawn in. As you will see, for a majority of states that dollar amount is larger than the number of pounds of food that are needed to end hunger!
Match resources with people
To help more eligible people get the government help they qualify for, schedule a meeting with your county’s welfare department to talk about the issue. Ideally they should be supportive of the idea of getting more eligible people signed up for and actually getting the help they need, and can provide you with an array of helpful materials including fact sheets, posters, application forms and other materials. They may even have an online application process you can access.
If that doesn’t work, check with a legal aid office, community action agency, cooperative extension office, or reference librarian at the nearest public library.
And if that doesn’t work out, go online to www.firstgov.gov or www.usda.gov or do a word search of your state’s name and “food stamps.”
Your goal is to become familiar with the Food Stamp Program and with how a person goes about applying for the program so that you can begin sharing that information with your pantry’s clients. If you do that you will have begun a process that could ultimately reduce the number of people who might have needed to draw food aid from your food pantry by 20-60 percent.
If you go a step further and start actually helping clients fill out their applications, get to the welfare department office or provide other needed help, you can move that process further and faster. Some food pantries now have welfare department caseworkers visit the pantry from time to time to take applications. Any variation on that activity will help increase the number of people who will get the help they need.
However, let me quickly hasten to add two extremely important “Thou Shalt Nots:”
■ Please do not insist that clients who may be eligible for government aid must apply for it. Sometimes people have real or imagined reasons for not wanting to do that. Please respect those concerns.
■ And similarly, please don’t refuse further help to people who apply for and begin receiving government assistance. It might not be enough to meet their needs.
To fulfill the potential of this step we don’t need all-or-nothing absolutes. We just need more—more people getting more help.