When the State Feeds Children, Children Go Hungry

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Dorothy McAuliffe

I can’t say anything bad about Virginia’s first lady, Dorothy McAuliffe. Her cause is admirable: ending childhood hunger. Her compassion seems entirely genuine. And it appears that she had been very effective, if effectiveness can be measured by the resources she has mobilized to advance her goals.

Writing in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today, McAuliffe ticked off a series of accomplishments. Seven hundred Virginia schools now offer Breakfast after the Bell programs than did three years ago. State school breakfast funding has increased by $2.7 million during her husband’s administration. Schools served 10 million more breakfasts and two million more after-school meals and snacks than in 2004, while 37 more school divisions serve summer meals. Meanwhile, Virginia has built the capacity of the nonprofit sector such as food banks to help feed the poor.

But McAuliffe’s op-ed neglects to address a critical question: Has this activity contributed to childhood hunger getting better or worse? What exactly constitutes “hunger” anyway?

Here is what I fear: All these school and nonprofit programs are creating a moral hazard in which poor parents, secure in the knowledge that government and charities will pick up the slack, are spending less money on nutritional food for their children. While McAuliffe’s good intentions are unassailable, her op-ed offers no evidence whatsoever that children are any better off as a result.

As can be seen in the chart above, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the food stamp program, increases payments based on family size. Maximum payments for the most destitute households — around $140 to $150 per child per month — are spartan. But they should be sufficient if the money is spent carefully. Part of the problem in America today is that food stamps are not spent wisely.

The best documentation comes from a study published in November 2016 by the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program. That study plumbed a vast reservoir of data assembled by “a leading grocery retailer” and accounted for 80% or so of the money that households spent through their SNAP cards.

Most notoriously, that study found that 9.25% of all expenditures by SNAP households went to “sweetened beverages,” mostly soft drinks. The New York Times used the data in a 2017 article to point out that PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and other food companies had lobbied heavily against efforts to prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase soft drinks and junk food. But the scandal is bigger than soft drinks. Money spent on sweetened beverages, prepared desserts, salty snacks, sugars, candy, juices, jams and jellies accounted for more than 22% of total food stamp expenditures at the grocery store. The actual percentage was likely higher because these numbers did not reflect expenditures, at neighborhood convenience stores where food offerings are heavily tilted toward soft drinks, snacks and other junk food.

Even if we don’t take convenience-store expenditures into account, food stamp recipients spend a higher percentage of their resources on junk food than non-recipients — about 23% compared to 20%. They also spend considerably more on the most expensive food category — meat, poultry and seafood, leaving less for healthy staples.

No wonder kids in poor neighborhoods are 2.7 times more likely to be obese than children from affluent families. The problem is not a lack of calories. The problem is the wrong kind of calories. Which raises the question: what kind of hunger are we talking about? Are poor children hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat — or are they consuming empty calories that temporarily satiate them but leave them feeling hungry later?

“Ending hunger in Virginia requires an ‘all of the above’ set of solutions,” McAuliffe writes. I would agree. But I would suggest that we’re not following an all-of-the-above approach. Schools are providing free breakfasts, free lunches, and afternoon snacks. Nonprofits are sending kids home on weekends with backpacks with food. Nonprofits support food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency food programs. Charities raise funds to feed families on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The underlying assumption is that poor families lack the money to feed themselves, and that society must intervene to ensure that children are fed. But the ultimate responsibility rests with parents.

The headline of McAuliffe’s op-ed reads “End of childhood hunger is in sight.” She probably did not write that headline. Regardless, I will venture to say that it is dead wrong. Here is a counter-intuitive prediction: The more that well-intentioned government and charities do to end childhood hunger and absolve parents of primary responsibility for feeding their children, the more pervasive hunger will get.

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22 responses to “When the State Feeds Children, Children Go Hungry”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well.. it’s not so simple and that’s the problem with zeroing in on one thing and then using that as a simplistic view of the program then condemning the program.. which is just wrong.

    I actually have similar concerns about dependency being incentivized but when you look fairly at SNAP – it’s more complex and not so easy to just say do away with it… no more than you’d do away with Medicaid even though we do spend a lot of money on entitlements -no question – and it’s simply not sustainable.. we have to start making cuts… but they have to be done with a scalpel not a meat ax.

    some simply searches ..will show .. that
    one half of SNAP is kids.. and more than half of the SNAP kids are NOT obese. Yes. the ones that ARE obese are at a higher rate than non-SNAP – on the order of 30% of non-SNAP are obese and 40% of SNAP are obese.

    Beyond the other half of SNAP recipients are the working poor – and the elderly.

    but this chart sorta dispels the “no grocery store nearby idea”


  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s another chart that shows that SNAP is not just kids:


    You would think .. that looking at the monthly benefits that the only way to stretch that money would be to buy staples.. not fast food or snack food … or for that matter not even fresh produce.

    could a person live on what, $25-30 dollars a week?

    just FYI – in the food pantry I volunteer at – most of those folks also get SNAP.. and then supplement coming to the pantry where they get a bag of groceries , some over-date bread that has been frozen, and frozen meat…and over-prime produce if it is available.

    Most of the pantry folks are not kids..but elderly and poor.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    There is something wrong with the interpretation of the data. Where are diet sodas? My guess is that they are included in sweetened beverages even though the sweetener isn’t sugar or corn syrup, etc. If true I don’t think one can infer much about the percentage of SNAP spend on sweetened beverages.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Nor can you infer that “diet” soda is good for you.

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I’m sure we all would greatly benefit by spending a period of our lives being poor, but I’m not going to volunteer now. In Jim’s case, though, I might recommend it. 🙂 He really is committed to the idea that poverty is the fault of the individual or the family, or encouraged by the system, and the rest of us have little or no obligation to help. Not much sticks with me from Sunday School, but that does – we are our brother’s keeper. I do not feel guilty about my success but I suffer no illusion – I was dealt many face cards and made sure my children got the same head start.

    I do not know the statistics but I suspect actual starvation is rare in this country unless the person has other problems. There are plenty of food programs, and plenty of people eager to expand them. On the contrary, the real problem is obesity and malnutrition. Several trips in the last few days watching my fellow travelers cramming themselves into the seats on Southwest made the statistics very real. And people buying airplane tickets are not poor. The thing I like about the school programs is the food will be fairly nutritious, but I probably don’t want to know how much goes into the trash. I do worry that it sends a message to parents that they are free of obligations, which some start to believe, but leaving the children to their tender mercies also worries me. They probably take the kid out to Mickey D’s right after school….

    Imagine if the amount of money being spent on ads for candy, soda, fatty fast foods and snake oil weight loss nostrums was instead focused on fruits and veggies and exercise and training in meal planning and prep. We’ve banned cigarette ads and fewer of them are used. Smoking is way down among young people. But I’m not sure that Type 2 diabetes isn’t a greater health threat than lung cancer.

    Also do not forget that the SNAP program, formerly known as Food Stamps, was created by the farm and grocery lobby and they would be the first to call to Washington if a serious effort were made to dump it. Those billions flow directly to them.

    I serve on the board of a non-profit focused on child health, promoted through home visitation. The parents who join of course are motivated, eager to help their kids, but what I’ve noticed is they really need help in figuring out how. They didn’t learn what we consider the basics because there really is a cycle to poverty, IMHO. Along with the food there must be other forms of education and support. Fishing lessons, not just fish.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      This is an absolutely great comment, Steve. Thank you so much.

    2. So, Steve, do I conclude from your comments that you are satisfied with the way SNAP is administered? Are you find with SNAP paying for soft drinks, ice cream, cookies, and potato chips? I’m not.

      Government shouldn’t tell people what to eat and what not to eat. But it also shouldn’t be subsidizing consumption of food that contributes to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. If that makes me a heartless, uncharitable beast, then so be it.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        yeah, but….

        you don’t shut down the program because it needs reform.

        and that’s what I get out of some Conservative thinking – like this:

        ” The more that well-intentioned government and charities do to end childhood hunger and absolve parents of primary responsibility for feeding their children, the more pervasive hunger will get.”

        they lay out the ugly as they should, but then they jump the shark…

        That’s not a good idea in my view. care to rephrase your thoughts?

        there are ACTUALLY reforms in progress:

        Food stamp changes may usher in welfare reform push


        changes which I’d support – though some parts of the proposed bill seem to me to be a bit on the punitive side..

        1. “You don’t shut down the program because it needs reform. that’s what I get out of some Conservative thinking – like this…”

          How do you come to that conclusion? That’s YOUR conclusion, not mine. I’ve never suggested we shut down the food stamp program. I AM trying to understand the unintended consequences of the program so we don’t continue to waste money and ruin lives.

      2. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Based on what I see around me (obesity everywhere), 1) people not on SNAP are probably as likely or more likely to spend their money that badly and 2) those who have those habits will satisfy them one way or the other. I think you said about a quarter of the money went to “bad” foods. From my time in the Cult of Zacharias (aka Richmond’s great weight loss program, Zacharias Ganey) I learned that it is about portion control and balance, and few foods were actually verboten (admittedly sugar soft drinks were indeed totally verboten, along with trans fats to the extent you could eliminate them.) Nothing I see indicates fat people are happy being fat and seek to become more fat, but a gazillion dollars of advertising and other marketing pushes them hard in that direction. Jeez, you think those gorgeous models in the Hardees ad’s are really stupid enough to eat that s$@t? SNAP ain’t the issue.

        Is WIC still out there? On that program, there are tight restrictions on what you can buy – but that expires when the infant starts to grow up, right?

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          both WIC and SNAP do still exist .. similar but separate and some folks qualify for both.

          You’d think they need to be combined…


  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Fishing lessons, not just fish.”

    yup… you got some good words there and those above it also.

    I’m sure one of the, perhaps not in giant headlines for some is ” why do we have so many damn poor to start with”.

    but then they go off the rails with the idea that helping them creates dependency (for some) ..therefore stop making (all) of them “dependent”.

    The SNAP program is really an asterisk when it comes to govt ‘help”.. look no further than TANF, Section 8 housing and Medicaid if you want to see the big kahunas…

    and almost all of it goes back to kids not getting sufficient education to grow up and – not only get a job – but get one that is sufficient to pay their needs – both while they work – and after they retire. We have a large number of elderly people in this country who are so poor they cannot even afford the $134 a month for Medicare and so the MedicAid program pays that premium – AND the 20% co-pay!

    and congrats and THANKS on serving on that Child Health non-profit board and yes we do have the responsibility to help others.. !!!

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I think both Larry and Steve have made some very good points. But let’s not forget the interests of the “professional caring class,” those people who earn their living based on the dependency of others. Large numbers of reasonably well paid individuals, many with advanced degrees, are paid directly or indirectly by taxes to “help” people who are effectively dependent on government or government-financed programs. They have no interest in seeing dependency go away.

    Lots of people simply need help to survive and almost anyone of us could find ourselves in a situation where we cannot support ourselves – physically, mentally, emotionally or financially. We need a safety net of sorts. But remember a large number of people have a strong interest in keeping large numbers of their neighbors dependent.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” But remember a large number of people have a strong interest in keeping large numbers of their neighbors dependent.”

    TMT – that sounds like some sort of right wing idea.

    I don’t know a single person that i would call a member of the “professional caring class”.. I DO know LOTs of folks who volunteer their time to help others.

    I WILL admit that there are some “do gooder” types who basically are misguided … in who they want to help and why.. but I’d hardly call them “professionals”… just folks who don’t really know the real problems and are stereotype challenged…

    For the record – I’m a believer in work … and work for benefits.. and entitlements but some folks – are just not “fit” to “work”.. that’s why they don’t have a job to start with – and you’d never ever entrust them with a job that is important to get done right. You might give them some “make work” to do but even that is more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.

    None of this changes the fact that there are folks who do legitimately need help and those that concern themselves with the “professional caring class” who themselves don’t volunteer… well. what can I say.. the seem to be forming opinions without any real basis to do so.

    Anyone who DOES actually volunteer .. AND wants to talk about the “caring class”.. I’m all ears… the others.. not so much..

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry, what I am talking about is the many individuals on government payrolls or on nonprofit payrolls who are funded by governments and who deal with “dependent” people. They have a very strong interest in retaining their jobs and making more money over time, just like anyone else on a payroll. They have an interest in ensuring that society does not run out of dependent people. While human nature and other factors will always provide needy people who truly require help, those people paid to help have an incentive to make sure there is a large supply of needy people and to define need broadly, rather than to make every effort to help make people self-sufficient.

      We are all self-serving at the core.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        TMT – their jobs are not determined by them but by budget… and yes they have a strong interest in their jobs like anyone would.. like those guys at the Pentagon … and Crystal City and the Fairfax School system and the Fairfax Fire Fighters.. VDOT.. METRO, etc, etc, etc.

        characterizing them as the “professional caring class” is just right wing blather.. they are no more and no less than others… in my view.

        They cannot “control” how many dependent people there are.. they can only set policies that are consistent with the laws than govern them.

        Do you consider the folks that run Medicare or MedicAid or Social Security or the VA or for than matter Innova or emergency rooms in general, as the “professional caring class”?

        geeze… come on guy..

        This year – we were “santa” to a child at social services.. what struck me was that when we signed up… we were called back at 6:30 pm to receive the details. and I asked the lady from Social Services if she was still at work.. and she said “yes”.. and not that uncommon. I had heard before just how tough their jobs were… but now I encountered it first hand.

        THESE ..are the folks who look after those on TANF… SNAP and other programs… they are run nearly to death.. and yes.. they could be called the “professional caring class” but I’d bet you they’d gladly accept a lower workload.. they play no role in deciding how many folks get help.. they just follow the law..

        when we impugn people like this … without even really knowing them or the difficulty of their work.. we do them a disservice… they’re just ordinary folks who go home at night to their own families.. and have to worry about their own bills.. and the rest of life…

        TMT – you might be drinking a tad bit too much of that Conservative kool-aid.

        the last folks in the world that are looking for more dependent people are the folks who are working 12 hours a day to process them and deal with their problems… on a daily basis.. I forget how many kids have to actually be removed from their parents.. but I was shocked at how many… there are parents that are TRULY unfit.. felons.. abusers.. etc… yessir.. those caring class folks just want more and more of that…

  8. djrippert Avatar

    Can SNAP money be used to buy alcohol? Can SNAP money be used to buy tobacco products? So, it’s OK to attach some strings but not too many? And ice cream would be going too far?

    The difference between conservatives and liberals is pretty basic. Liberals believe that the money generated by the Americans in the economy is really the government’s money no matter which individuals earn it. Taxes don’t take away someone’s earnings. Your earnings minus your taxes is what the government charitably allows you to keep of the government’s money. Conservatives believe that all the money an individual earns is his or her property. The government must take away some amount of your property to run the country. However, since your earnings are your property the government should take away as little as possible and try to make the tax bite smaller over time.

    So, to a liberal the SNAP payments are sort of a salary paid to poor people. It was the government’s money anyway so the government can do what it wants with its money. There is no issue with a SNAP recipient using government money to buy ice cream and then using more government money to get free health care for obesity related maladies.

    To a conservative, SNAP payments are a gift from somebody who earned the money to somebody who didn’t. The recipient owes it to the donor to use the gift wisely and to try to avoid creating situations where they have to come “hat in hand” for yet more gifts.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: conservative versus liberal.

      you’re not totally incorrect but like Bacon you tend to see things as all or nothing… and not a continuum… with grey…

      SNAP is in the same arena as TANF , SSI, MedicAid, etc.. and the question is what do we do with folks who need help? That’s not a liberal or conservative issue unless one wants to say that Conservatives don’t ask that question because the answer will always be ” we do nothing – period”.

      So only a small percentage of wacka-doodles actually own that position.

      Everyone else has some level of ” we do this” and yes “we” does mean people who earn money – even all those Washington area beltway bandits and all the 3rd party companies that sell goods and services to the govt and it’s contractors.. but I digress…

      The problem with entitlements is the slippery slope.

      Steve asked with WIC was still around.. it is. and so are 17 more “food” programs for the poor – each of them specializing in a certain demographic of poor.

      these things have grown over the years and now constitute an effing mess of bureaucracy that needs to be put out of it’s misery. Slim it down to ONE agency and let them handle it… right now we have separate programs for women, kids, working poor, handicapped, elderly, homeless.. on and on and on..

      the poor schmucks who actually administer these programs are the farthest thing from the so-called “professional caring class”. Most of them are low level worker bees.. pushing paper and keying computers… for not a wonderful wage.. and they have no ability what-so-ever to “expand” the number of folks who get benefits. All of that is a pre-defined guide that they follow. If you earn over 130% of the poverty level -you’re OUT… no low level clerk is going to “qualify” you because he/she wants more people to be dependent… .. geeze.. where does this stuff come from?

      Perhaps Mr. Trump will ferret out all those “professional caring class” slime-balls and kick their plump behinds so far out of govt service.. they’ll never return!

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” The difference between conservatives and liberals is pretty basic. Liberals believe that the money generated by the Americans in the economy is really the government’s money no matter which individuals earn it. Taxes don’t take away someone’s earnings. Your earnings minus your taxes is what the government charitably allows you to keep of the government’s money. Conservatives believe that all the money an individual earns is his or her property. The government must take away some amount of your property to run the country. However, since your earnings are your property the government should take away as little as possible and try to make the tax bite smaller over time.”

    That IS a MOUTHFUL………. ESPECIALLY coming from a man who lives in the bluest blue part of Virginia!

    Why is it that most all urban areas and most all higher ed are “Liberal”?

    Blue Urban areas are in no way, shape and form … “limited government”, right?

    The most economically and literate countries on the face of the earth – are basically Liberal .. many Conservatives who do live in those places call them Marxist and “welfare states” … with “free” health care and “free” education all provided by taking from folks to pay for it, right?

    I think you got the Conservative theory “correct” – but the reality – is not what Conservatives actually believe in the advanced economy nations. You have to go to 3rd world countries to see how “real” Conservatism where people DO keep THEIR money – actually does “work”.

    In those countries the would-be do-gooders are kept in their place!!

  10. Inthemiddle Avatar

    I’m trying to connect the dots of this argument.

    Are we saying that the free meals programs are causing parents to make bad choices in food purchases?

    I would have thought the causation goes the other way – we offer free meals in schools to ensure good nutrition for students, even if their parents are making bad choices (or have limited means to make good choices, or have limited time to actually make meals, etc.)

    I also wonder about the analysis of the statistics. (LarrytheG provides useful additional information.)

    For example, I’m trying to understand why we think this data suggests that people using food stamps are making significantly different choices than the rest of us. Is there really a meaningful nutritional difference between spending 23% on junk food rather than 20%?

    And when we see that the food stamp recipients use a larger portion of their food budget for animal protein than the rest of us, is this because the rest of us make better purchasing decisions, or because the rest of us have larger food budgets and spend the extra money on ‘healthier’ items? (Kale and quinoa?)

    As for sweetened soft drinks, we are in basic agreement – they are a plague.

    Speaking of needing help, I’ll simply mention that a 2016 GAO report noted that 23,000 military families participated in the SNAP program in 2013; in 2015, they used $21 million of food stamps; in 2015, 24 percent of the students in DOD EA schools were eligible for free meals and 21 percent were eligible for subsidized meals. https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-561

    1. IntheMiddle, I’m not advancing an argument so much as I’m questioning the received wisdom. I don’t have much contact with poor people, and I don’t know their food consumption habits. But those who formulate public policy don’t have much contact with poor people either, and I doubt they know much about their food consumption habits.

      I raise the possibility that food stamps, WIC, soup kitchens, food pantries, etc. are creating a moral hazard in which poor families are more careless with their food spending knowing that schools and charities will take up the slack when the kids go hungry. What I didn’t mention in my post is how here in the Richmond area Feedmore has evolved into an institution over the past decade or so whose job was to help poor families deal with emergency situations into one that is permanent part of the food landscape. Something is going on that no one is talking about.

      Poor people are rational. If they know someone else will step in and feed them and their children, they will use their scarce resources to buy more luxuries (even if those “luxuries” are Pringles, soft drinks, ice cream and other items that more affluent people take for granted). This view is absolutely supported by the USDA data.

  11. Inthemiddle Avatar

    Thanks for your response! I’m with you on challenging received wisdom.

    I would agree with an hypothesis that we have a nutrition crisis in our country that is creating a public health crisis. (The CDC reports that obesity has significantly increased among all segments of our population. In the period 2007-2008, men with some college had a higher rate of obesity than high school dropouts).

    Similarly, I would agree with an hypothesis that it is possible for low income households to eat healthy, for example, by following the buying guidelines proposed by the USDA.

    However, my guess is that food consumption is largely driven by our cultural eating habits and the commercial interests pushing tasty, but nutritionally worthless foods/drinks.

    I can also agree with you that it is hypothetically possible that the poor are using the school meals programs to subsidize their purchase of nutritionally worthless foods and beverages.

    But I would disagree with your comment that the USDA data absolutely supports your hypothesis.

    As I mentioned, I’m unconvinced that the difference between spending 23% of the food budget on sweets is significantly different from spending 20%. Neither are healthy, and it suggests that the SNAP recipients are pretty much eating like the rest of us.

    Much of the difference between the percentages can be explained by the simple fact that the poor have less money to spend on food than the rest of us. Which means the rest of us can use our additional funds to buy other foods, changing the percentage mix of each category. (The USDA reported that the households in the bottom 20% of income spend over 30% of their income on groceries, compared to 13 % for the households in the middle 20%.)

    For example, SNAP households spend over 9% of their budget on sweetened drinks – a truly scary amount – compared to 7% for the rest of us, which is only somewhat less scary. However, the rest of us are spending a lot more on food than the poor – we could all be drinking the same amount of sweetened beverages.

    The question for our discussion, however, is what evidence is there that SNAP recipients would have made other choices if free meals at school were not available.

    Regarding healthy food, the BLS commented that households in the bottom 20% of income spend $284 per person on fruits and vegetables while the households in the middle 20% spend $398. This difference is significant, but the question is whether there is any evidence that the difference is a result of the food programs.

    As I mentioned, I can’t disagree that it is hypothetically possible that the various food programs do little more than allow the poor to buy more nutritionally worthless foods/beverages. But some evidence that this is happening would be helpful.

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