A triage of issues concerning food security in Rhode Island drew Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, along with Lietenant Governor Dan McKee to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation and probe for answers, although no easy ones appear to be in sight.
First and foremost, despite reports of a recovering economy and increased job creation – most often heard in attempts to bolster political speeches – poverty, food insecurity and the reliance on food assistance programs are all higher than they were 10 years ago at the onset of the Great Recession, according to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s annual status report.
Over 170,000 Rhode Islanders enrolled in SNAP benefits in 2016, up from 78,000 in 2007. The poverty rate in Rhode Island is 12.8 percent, compared to an even 12 percent in 2007. An additional 8,000 children are receiving free or reduced lunch, up from 46,000 in the 2006-07 school year, while an additional 10,000 receive breakfast at school (up to 28,000 from 18,000 in 2006-07).
The most alarming increase revealed that 57,000 people in Rhode Island require assistance from the Food Pantry’s 155 member agencies each month, an increase of 24,000 from 2007 numbers (71 percent). The number of families reporting very low food security increased from 3.7 percent in 2004-06 to 6.1 percent in 2014-16.
Rhode Island Community Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff said during Monday’s press conference that the current situation is symptomatic of problems stemming from a lack of good job creation.
“Even though the state’s unemployment rate has come down – more people have jobs, and that’s good – 13 percent of the state’s population lives in poverty,” he said. “People working at low-wage jobs still don’t earn enough to be able to afford basic household expenses, including food. And that’s why so many people rely on the federal nutrition programs, particularly SNAP, to feed their families.”
According to the report, one third of the jobs created in Rhode Island in the past year have garnered an annual average wage of just $26,529 for their employees. The median house price for a single family home in Rhode Island was around $250,000 in 2016. A two-bedroom apartment rent averaged around $1,200 a month.
Schiff said that the only solution to prevent this problem from getting worse is to increase wages and ensure more people have access to quality food.
“Wages have been stagnant for too long and have not kept up with the real cost of living in Rhode Island,” he said. “The solution is to raise wages, particularly for folks at the low end of the wage scale and provide government programs and benefits so that all families can afford the basic necessities of life. If we want a healthy and productive workforce in Rhode Island, then we have to ensure healthy and nutritious food for everyone.”
Instead, legislators in the House of Representatives have proposed a tax plan which would slash $160 billion from SNAP benefits over 10 years, in addition to cuts for Medicaid, Medicare and even school meal programs. At the same time, it proposes eliminating the estate tax, a tax which only significantly impacts wealthy property owners who wish to pass property and real estate to their next of kin.
“In Washington, Senator Reed and I are seeing a push to help those who enjoy abundance beyond abundance – immeasurable wealth – to have them have even more at the expense of the people who struggle every day to get by,” said Senator Whitehouse. “It’s a very unpleasant struggle to be a part of.”
While both Senators expressed their cautious doubts that the proposed tax plan will make it through the Senate in its current form, Reed expressed his bewilderment that the debate is occurring in the first place.
“I’m amazed,” said Senator Reed. “One would think in the greatest, most wealthy and powerful nations in the world, everyone could have an adequate meal and we wouldn’t be squabbling over extraordinary tax cuts to the very wealthy, we would be making sure that everybody got fed, and that’s what we’re going to try to do in Washington.”
Lastly, although people requiring SNAP benefits remains high, access and receipt of the program is becoming increasingly difficult for thousands of Rhode Islands, as the rolling out of the new UHIP computer system has caused tremendous problems for the Department of Human Services – erasing user information, losing documents and issuing incorrect benefits information for those who rightly qualify for more service.
“In over three decades of doing this work, I have never experienced the volume of problems that have arisen since the state instituted its new UHIP computer system,” said Mary Curtain, legal assistant from Rhode Island Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm set up to assist people who seek to qualify for safety net benefits. “Since the implementation of the new UHIP system, applicants and recipients have suffered.”
Senator Reed vowed to use his position in the Senate to fight cuts to SNAP, as he views it as a vital service to hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders.
“The SNAP program is fundamental, and it’s particularly fundamental for children,” he said. “We all know without good nutrition, children get sick. Without good nutrition, children can’t study as well at school as they could if they did receive a good meal.”
Schiff said that the problems associated with the new UHIP system were inexcusable and, although the governor or her administration clearly didn’t intend for the system to become so mired in problems, more must be done – and quickly – to remedy the errors.
In the meantime, Schiff said that the Food Bank would continue to service as many people as it possibly can, and strives to never turn anyone away who needs help. However, at the same time, they have a limit for what they can do too.
“Something has to give, and the safety net is on the chopping block. That is a terrifying prospect for the Food Bank,” he said, adding that, “We want folks to understand that this problem is so big that it has to be solved at the state level. The work of the Food Bank is not going to be able to mitigate the seriousness and the extent of the problems that we’re facing. We will do everything we can to feed everyone who comes to us and turns to a food pantry for help, but in the end these problems have to be solved.”