Dollar & Sense:  Public Benefits for Economic Gains

Hunger’s true cost is astonishing. On an individual level, hunger hurts. But hunger in America has a cost far beyond the human suffering. The Center for American Progress estimated that in 2010, hunger cost our country $167.5 billion, or $542 per person — due to the combination of lost economic productivity per year, more expensive public education because of the rising costs of poor education outcomes, avoidable health care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed. For this reason, Vermont food assistance programs, both public and private, are a good economic investment.  These programs support and sustain our democracy’s most valuable asset — our people.

Mary and Andy: A Vermont Story
The following story of a Vermont family shows how a sudden loss of income can lead to poverty and hunger, and it shows how assistance helps sustain both the family and the economy. Although this portrait is fictional, the figures given here are drawn from very real statistics of a typical middle-class Vermont family.* 

Mary and Andy live just outside Burlington in a two-bedroom condo they bought in 2006. They have two children, Margaret, 4, and Josh, 7. Margaret goes to daycare during the week. Josh is in the second grade. In 2008, they were living a pretty typical middle-class life.

Andy worked in construction and made $788 a week. Mary worked in a department store in Burlington and made $394 a week. They also picked up some odd jobs on the weekends and at night, which brought in another $400 a month. Their total monthly income was around $5,128. The family’s living expenses for the month totaled $5,124. Even when they budgeted carefully, Mary and Andy barely made it from month to month.

Mary and Andy’s Total Annual Gross Income
$62,000 (approx.)

Weekly wage:       $788

Monthly wage:     $3,152

Weekly wage:        $394

Monthly wage:        $1,576

Weekly wage:        $100 

Monthly wage:        $400

Weekly:                   $1,282 

Monthly:                   $5,128

($5,124 per month)

Food:                        $753
Child care:              $1,089
Medical:                  $360
Housing:                 $1,013
Transportation:   $931
Fuel/Utilities:       $200
Miscellaneous:     $778

In 2009 the Great Recession hit Andy and Mary full force. Construction slowed down, and Andy lost his job. The tangible consequences were severe. The family’s income dropped from about $62,000 a year to about $19,000. This pushed the family below the poverty line (about $22,000 for a family of four). Even with Andy’s monthly unemployment check of $1,420, they were short $2,128 a month. They stood to lose their home and their hopes and dreams.

Hunger Programs: A Good Economic Investment
As Andy struggled to find work, he shouldn’t have had to worry about his family going hungry. Every day at the Vermont Foodbank we see what our programs can do to help people like Andy and Mary recover their lives. We know that when people stop suffering from hunger, they can add to our collective economic wealth.

The economic benefits of SNAP, the federal food stamp program, or what is called 3SquaresVT in Vermont, are well documented. According the Center for American Progress, “Each $1 billion spent by recipients enables nearly 14,000 American to find or keep their jobs.” The research firm Moody’s Economy also found that SNAP is the “fastest way to infuse money into the economy.” Why? Because Mary and Andy’s $472 3SquaresVT allotment each month is going directly to their local market.** This spending, in turn, keeps people working. The USDA estimates “that each $5 of federal SNAP benefits generates nearly twice that in economic activity.” While 3SquareVT helps Mary and Andy, it also helps pay the grocery clerk, the truck driver who delivers the food, and the farmer who grows it.

Because his school is enrolled in the program, Josh was eligible for free breakfasts and lunches. He also benefited from the Vermont Foodbank’s BackPack and Summer Nutrition programs, which recognize that keeping children healthy extends way beyond the school walls. Many teachers have reported that children who are food insecure have benefited significantly from both the in-school meals and the extended programs. These children start the year off better and are absent less often during the year. Their grades improve, and they can focus better on assignments. 

Even with of the all the preceding government and charitable benefits, Mary and Andy could not purchase enough nutritious food to feed their family healthy meals on a consistent basis. Their 3SquaresVT allotment and cash inevitably ran out by the end of the month. By providing nutritious food gathered from businesses, farms, and charitable groups like the Vermont Foodbank, food shelves and pantries play a critical role in getting people through the month. The Foodbank delivers more than 8 million pounds of food a year, including farm Fresh produce, to food shelves around the state.

Food assistance programs*** are an investment in ensuring the health of our nation’s most important asset—its citizens. The ultimate solution to poverty is, of course, finding livable-wage jobs for people like Andy and Mary, but when people face hard times, we need to pull together as a community to ensure that we have a strong safety net that will lead to a stronger economic recovery.  

 *This fictional composite is made up from information gathered from the Vermont Department of Labor, the Vermont Livible Wage Campaign, the Food Research & Action Center, and the Public Assets Institute.
**The 3SquaresVT allocation depends on many factors. The figure given here is an estimate based on Mary and Andy’s situation.
***The more than 8 million pounds of food delivered last year, including fresh produce, helped families like Any and Mary’s.