Unnatural Disasters

When the Daily News sent truckloads of goods to Staten Island, it wasn’t the food and bottled water that got the most enthusiastic reception from residents battered by Hurricane Sandy.

“Thank God you guys had diapers, thank God theDaily News got diapers,” Salvatore Antonelli said as the News truck laden with the precious cargo arrived.

Antonelli said he and pal Regina Azzarelli have 11 grandchildren between them. And ever since Sandy struck last week, diapers have been in demand.

At the National Diaper Bank Network, we partnered with Huggies and the American Red Cross to get diapers to families hard-hit by the storm. We also got a call from an absolute angel of a man who is personally donating 20,000 diapers to children affected by the storm in New Jersey and New York. We were able to accept large donations and get diapers into disaster areas quickly thanks to our distribution partner, Kids in Distressed Situations. We were honored to be able to help babies in this time of need.

The generosity we’ve seen in the past week has been inspiring. The task of those of us who run non-profits is to find a better way to communicate need outside of these extraordinary events. Diapers, like food, water and housing, are a necessity. During a natural disaster like Sandy, we all recognize that.

But for many families, every day is a disaster where it’s a struggle to meet children’s basic needs. Yet the traditional safety net programs that benefit poor children, like WIC and Food Stamps, do not pay for diapers. Except in extreme circumstances, we don’t treat diapers like the necessities that they are.

One in three families struggles to provide diapers. As a result, babies are left in wet diapers and get rashes and infections. One in twenty moms reports emptying out soiled diapers and reusing them because she cannot afford to change her baby. Those are shocking statistics. Worse: They are unnecessary statistics.

The past week has shown what we can all do when we see people in need and then resolve to help. We need to translate that resolve into an ongoing commitment to reach out to families who are rocked by a layoff, an eviction or a hospital bill that’s more than a year’s pay. People face storms of many kinds. The question is: How committed are we to helping our neighbors weather them?

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This post appeared originally in The Huffington Post on November 9, 2012

Postscript to Memorial Day Post

On Memorial Day, we wrote about the many great organizations that help our service men and women and their families who  tend to marry and start families younger than their civilian counterparts, and are often supporting those families while still very junior in rank, making wages that fall below the poverty level for a family of four.   (Read our original blog post here.) As we noted then, although the pay structure has improved in the last two decades, there is still a sizeable number of military families who receive food assistance, either from military’s Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance program or from private non-profit organizations such as Operation Homefront.

A recent Huffington Post article by Michael McAuliff suggests that the numbers of military members on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is even higher than we had originally thought, with as many as 1000 active duty military members receiving SNAP, and 150,000 households which also receive veterans’ benefits are relying on SNAP.  The SNAP and WIC rolls have expanded because of the economic crisis and the greater number of people at risk of food insecurity.  Inclusion of military families in their numbers reflects the changing nature of the military family.  The Senate has just approved a version of the Farm Bill that cuts SNAP benefits by $90 a month, and the House threatens to cut the program even more.  Religious institutions and other charitable institutions which help families in need are not positioned take up the slack without significant increases in their resources. Families having difficulty making ends meet may need even more help.  Give generously to your local diaper bank to help ease at least one need.

Rising Tides–Food Security and the National Welfare

Advocates for tax cuts often invoke the saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” as support for tax cut policies that favor the rich on the theory that such cuts will support the larger economy.  Tax cuts like the proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” from which the proposed House Budget plans to cut by $127 billion over ten years.  But apart from the question of whether the underlying premise–that tax cuts favoring high earners helps the economy–this use of the phrase to justify tax cuts ignores the actual reason that a rising tide lifts boats.

Boats, floating on water, rise when the water rises underneath the boat.  The water acts like a floor–below which no boat sails.

Rather than tax cuts, the proverb seems more applicable to those programs that help ensure that people’s most basic needs are met–the floor below which no one should be allowed to sink.  We should apply the proverb to programs that ensure that people have food and shelter, that jobs pay at least a minimum wage, that all children have access to quality educational opportunities.  It is through these programs that the national economy expands and thrives, causing all boats to rise–dinghies as well as yachts.

SNAP, and the other food assistance programs, the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) help an extraordinary number of people struggling to provide food for their family for comparatively little money.  According to the USDA‘s report on Household Food Security in 2010, SNAP provided an average benefit of $134 to an average of 40.3 million people each month. The School Lunch Program provided lunches to an average of 31.6 million school children each day, 56% of which were provided free to children in low income families.  And WIC served an average of 9.2 million participants each month, providing benefits of about $42 per person.

Although these are not large amounts per person, they are effective.  Census data show while that hunger and food insecurity surged in 2008, it did not increase further in 2009 and 2010 even though unemployment and poverty continued to increase. This is because programs such as SNAP and WIC were expanded to meet the increased need.  We also know that SNAP is effective in reducing the nation’s poverty rate.  In 2010, it succeeded in lifting 3.9 million U.S. residents, many of whom are children, above the poverty line.

But it is not only the recipients who benefit from SNAP dollars, local communities benefit as well.   According to the USDA, for every $5 of SNAP funding, $9 of community spending is generated.  Also, because SNAP and other food assistance programs help people get back on their feet, they contribute to ensuring a productive work force for the community and the nation.  Thirty percent of people who receive SNAP work for wages.  Ensuring that workers are sufficiently fed may help ensure that they and their families are healthier, thereby reducing the number of lost work days due to illness.  Additionally, SNAP benefits, which can be used at local farmer’s markets, help the nation’s family farm economy–in 2010, 1611 farmer’s markets and direct marketing farmers participated in SNAP. Each $1 billion of retail generated by SNAP creates $340 million in farm production, $110 million in farm value added, and 3,300 farm jobs and 8,900-17,900 full-time jobs.

Indeed, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP is considered the one of the most effective government response to the recession, not just for people in need, but for our entire economy.  So the next time someone says that a rising tide floats all boats, agree, but point out that the most effective way to raise the tide is to support SNAP, not by cutting it.  Help ensure that we don’t leave our neighbors under water, and thus further impoverish our nation–support SNAP and the other food security programs.  Don’t leave people stranded at low tide.

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