The life-threatening consequences of policy-making by anecdote for older Mainers

Sandy Butler, University of Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on October 11, 2016.


A September U.S. Department of Agriculture report on food insecurity shows that the number of Americans in food-insecure households has dropped, though numbers remain above pre-recession levels. That’s a welcome piece of news for most Americans.

But as food insecurity decreases in the U.S., it has worsened in Maine. Maine went from the 12th-highest rate of food insecurity in 2014 to ninth highest in 2015. Of even greater concern is that Maine has the third-highest rate of very low food security. Food insecurity is the limited ability to acquire nutritionally adequate and safe food. Very low food security means that a person experiences periods of going without enough food.

Why are Maine families losing ground when there is less food insecurity overall nationally? Maine has been slower than many other states to recover from the Great Recession. But certain policy decisions also have caused thousands to lose access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. SNAP is the nation’s primary defense against hunger, and that safety net has been greatly weakened in Maine in recent years.

Older adults living on fixed incomes comprise one group of people who are not benefiting from our slowly recovering economy and who are disproportionately affected by program cuts. Sadly, many older adults in Maine experience food insecurity. Nationally, about one in 11 households with an older adult experiences food insecurity, and the rate is highest for older adults living alone. The consequences of not having enough of or the right kinds of food can be severe for an older adult: anemia, lower cognitive function, increased anxiety and depression, poorer physical function and decreased quality of life.

This past July, I spoke with 32 low-income older adults in Washington and Hancock counties who participated in two focus groups about hunger and food assistance programs. This project was funded by the Maine Bar Association and represented collaboration among Eastern Area Agency on Aging, Legal Services for the Elderly and Maine Equal Justice Partners. The purpose was to hear directly from older adults about their experiences with food insecurity.

While avoiding labeling their experiences as actual “hunger,” group participants described not being able to afford the types of nutritious food they knew they needed to remain healthy.

“It is not necessarily that the choices you make are nutritious choices, it is what we can make go the furthest,” said one woman. “So we are not getting the nutrition that we should be getting to live a healthy life.”

Participants spoke of making difficult decisions on how to stretch their fixed incomes to cover all their costs. The distressing choice between paying for prescription medications or groceries came up, as well as prioritizing bills that had to be paid over those that could wait another month.

Focus group members also spoke about barriers they faced in accessing SNAP. Many did not know whether they were eligible or how to find out if they were. Others spoke of the difficulty of accessing the Department of Health and Human Services by phone or in person, with one man mentioning how the threatened closure of a DHHS office in Calais would make things worse. Furthermore, the fact that so much of the application process is now electronic can be difficult for some older adults. More than 40 percent of older adults in Maine eligible for SNAP do not get this help — that’s 25,000 of our neighbors.

A harsh stigma against people who receive assistance — which has grown recently in Maine in a climate of focusing on negligible fraud over truly helping people — also affects older community members. One focus group participant spoke of being embarrassed to have a photo on her SNAP card, as she felt it advertised her situation to others. Another relayed a story of a friend unwilling to go into a store with her, as he was ashamed of being associated with someone using food stamps.

We learned that our general prejudice against people in need contributes to the food insecurity faced by older adults in our communities. We should do all we can to ensure all people struggling to meet basic needs get the support necessary to keep themselves and their families adequately fed and healthy. At the very least, we must make sure victim-blaming policies built on prejudice and anecdotal evidence don’t contribute to life-threatening consequences for our elder neighbors and family members.

Sandy Butler is professor of social work and graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine in Orono. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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