Latinos are becoming a national presence and will represent a crucial segment of our nation’s future workforce. They accounted for more than half of the nation’s growth from 2000 to 2010 and will be a third of the overall population by 2050. Latino children currently make up more than one in five children in the United States. They are the youngest and fastest growing population in the nation.
Yet Latinos are disproportionately affected by high rates of hunger and are experiencing record rates of childhood obesity. According to a recent study by the Department of Agriculture, rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average among Hispanic households. The rate of food insecurity for Hispanics was 26.9 percent while the national average rate was 14.7 percent. Latino children made up almost 31 percent of the 16.6 million children experiencing low food security, meaning that their food intake was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
Ironically, Hispanic children are also more likely than their non-Hispanic white peers to be overweight or obese. Obesity and hunger are interrelated because low-income families may be forced to buy cheaper, higher calorie foods in order to make their food budgets last. And 38.2 percent of Hispanic children are overweight or obese compared to 35.9 percent of black children and 29.3 percent of white children. Furthermore, Hispanic families are less likely than non-Hispanic white families to live in neighborhoods where healthy foods are available and sold at affordable prices. Obese children often become obese adults, and are increasingly at risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
The promise of SNAP
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the nation’s largest antihunger program. When our nation experienced a large spike in unemployment between 2008 and 2009, increased SNAP benefits put in place by the Obama administration in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 helped prevent a corresponding increase in hunger. Increased money for food stamps not only helped families, it boosted the economy through increased spending.
Hispanic children and their families, however, are less likely to receive help from SNAP than non-Hispanic white or African American children. Today, only 39 percent of eligible Latino families receive SNAP benefits compared to 65 percent of African Americans and 74 percent of Caucasians. Latino families have a particularly low participation in SNAP because they face various hurdles.
A survey conducted by Children’s Health Watch found that more than one-fifth of SNAP eligible families reported barriers to applying for SNAP. Mothers of SNAP eligible families reported lack of information about the program and immigration concerns as obstacles to SNAP participation. Because SNAP requires a five-year residency requirement, even adult legal immigrants who have not resided in the country for that long cannot access SNAP benefits. About 52 percent of Hispanic children are native-born children of immigrants. This lack of awareness of emergency feeding programs, the confusion or complexity of the application process, and the stigma associated with asking for help puts Latino children at greater nutritional and health risks.
Certain actions must take place to eliminate these hurdles and increase SNAP participation.
- Increasing awareness. Public awareness about hunger in the Latino community and further outreach to Hispanic communities on the importance of SNAP should be on the agenda of major grassroots organizations. Congress should invest in outreach and education projects for eligible populations with low participation rates, including the elderly, low-income working households, and immigrant households.
- Simplify application processes. Simpler pre-screening tools should be implemented to facilitate the process of determining eligibility. States and counties can use a categorical eligibility option, where families eligible to receive services by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF program, will be “categorically eligible” to receive SNAP benefits without the need for asset or gross income tests.
- Reconsider eligibility of immigrant families. Congress should lift the bar that prohibits legal immigrants from accessing SNAP in their first five years in the United States.
These steps will help break down the barriers to SNAP participation and increase Latino participation in SNAP. Latino children will gain access to more essential nutrients, better physical and mental health, and better academic performance.
Ending child hunger
As the debate about our nation’s budget deficit continues, we must fight against proposals that would exacerbate child hunger. The GOP budget proposal for FY 2012 would convert SNAP into a block grant, cutting the program by $127 billion over the next 10 years. Cutting SNAP benefits would increase hunger and poverty. According to the Census Bureau data on disposable family income, SNAP helped lift 4.6 million Americans above the poverty line in 2009, including 2.1 million children.
Instead of cutting SNAP benefits, Congress should consider reducing or eliminating high tax breaks to companies and people who don’t need them. Donna Cooper from the Center for American Progress shows that billions of dollars are spent on unnecessary tax entitlements. Oil companies such as Exxon Mobil benefit from more than $9 billion in tax breaks for oil exploration and large biofuels companies, such as Archer Daniels Midland, benefit from the ethanol tax break that now costs nearly $5 billion a year. Are we willing to accept cuts aimed at programs such as SNAP that help the most vulnerable while leaving in place special interest subsidies for oil companies with record-breaking profits? Reducing the budget deficit is important, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t exacerbate conditions for hungry and poor people.
Hunger’s root cause is poverty. Families below the poverty line do not have enough income to purchase nutritious food for their families. If we want to address hunger, we need to address poverty. In 2009, poverty was at its highest level for Latino children since 1997. 33.1 percent of Hispanic children were below 100 percent of the poverty line compared to 11.9 percent of white children. CAP’s recent paper, “Feeding Opportunity: Ending Child Hunger Furthers the Goal of Cutting U.S. Poverty in Half over the Next Decade,” argues that we need to invest in our federal child nutrition programs and strengthen other income and work support programs to reduce hunger and poverty for all Americans and close racial and ethnic disparities.
During his campaign, President Obama set out a national goal of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015. With only four years left to reach that goal, our nation should focus on strengthening antihunger programs, not hindering them. Because poverty and hunger are interrelated problems, the steps we take to eliminate child hunger will ultimately reduce poverty in America.
Anyone concerned with our long-term economic growth and productivity should care about Latino poverty and hunger. Over the last decade, the number of Latino children grew 39 percent. As Congress considers cuts on programs that assist Latino communities, it should remember that the growth and development of our Latino children will help secure a strong economic future for the United States.
Alejandro Garcia is an Intern with Progress 2050 at American Progress.