A peculiar thing happened last year during the Covid-19 pandemic: As large swaths of the U.S. economy shut down and unemployment skyrocketed, hunger rates held steady and poverty rates went down.
From the pandemic’s earliest days, Washington showed it had learned the lessons of past crises like the 2008 financial collapse, when policymakers responded with too little too late to help people get by and the economic recovery was hampered as a result. So as the country faced a once-in-a-century pandemic and the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, Congress threw trillions at the double disaster, sending unprecedented levels of aid to American families and businesses.
Soon, a pattern was evident, thanks in part to real-time monitoring by the U.S. Census Bureau: When Washington doled out federal aid, hardship declined. When Washington let aid expire, hardship ticked back up.
In essence, the pandemic triggered a country-wide policy experiment aimed at keeping families fed and financially afloat. There have been big increases in food stamps and unemployment benefits. Three rounds of stimulus checks. Universal free meals at schools and new grocery benefits for kids who are learning virtually, or out of school during the summer. Hundreds of millions of food boxes flooded into churches and other nonprofits.
The latest tranche of aid may carry the biggest bang yet: six monthly child tax credit payments that will be dispersed through the end of the year. The first two rounds of payments that went out in July and August fueled a dramatic reduction in the rate of American households with kids who report sometimes or often not having enough to eat in the past week, according to the Census Bureau.
All that aid appears to have worked.
“Lo and behold, if you give people money, they are less poor,” said Elaine Waxman, an economist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute who has closely monitored how low-income households have fared throughout the crisis.
Importantly, much of the aid from Washington during the pandemic has been direct cash assistance. That’s been a dramatic change for a country that’s long preferred to help those in need with non-cash aid like food stamps, health care coverage or subsidized housing, all targeted at low-income households. Doling out in-kind benefits generally requires paperwork and bureaucracy. Sending people checks or direct deposits is relatively simple — and quick.
Data shows that these changes have had an impact. While anti-hunger advocates and some economists had feared food insecurity rates had increased during the pandemic, USDA reported this week that the overall rate was unchanged in 2020 — a remarkable feat after an unprecedented shock.
The picture isn’t unclouded: The new data also shows that the food insecurity gap between Black and white households widened in 2020. But advocates are now hopeful the pandemic response will actually drive rates down below pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021, leaving millions of families better off than before the crisis. By comparison, it took the country more than a decade to rebound from a big spike in food insecurity in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
What’s more, thanks to the tracking by the Census Bureau, we know how Americans are using the aid: The No. 1 thing households report buying with the money is food, followed by utilities and other necessities.
All of this has some policy makers wondering: If we know what drives food insecurity down, why not drive it down to zero? Why not end hunger in the wealthiest country on earth?
“We shouldn’t have to wait for a once-in-a-century pandemic to think boldly about addressing fundamental injustices in our society,” said House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the most vocal anti-hunger advocate in Congress, in an interview. “We all ought to want to fix this. There’s enough reason to compel the left and the right and everybody in between to hang their hat on a bold initiative to eradicate hunger, once and for all, in this country.”
But ending hunger is not something Congress has been particularly focused on. Despite periodic attempts to tackle the problem, policy in Washington tends to get mired in deep-seated debates over the size and role of government. Is it Washington’s job to make sure everyone can afford to feed their families?
Thanks to Covid-19, the question facing policymakers now is a little different. The pandemic has shown us how to slash hunger in America. So do we want to? At what cost? Is it more expensive to end hunger or live with it?
The fact that hunger persists in the United States, the richest country on earth, has always been a tragic paradox. Economists have lots of explanations for why millions of Americans struggle to access enough food, even when the economy is doing well. Chronically low wages mean that workers, even working full-time, can’t cover the basic costs of living. Long before the pandemic hit, millions of low-income workers were fighting to survive each month, living paycheck to paycheck, skipping meals to save money to pay the rent or medical bills.
Other pieces of the puzzle are trickier to quantify, but many are inextricably linked to poverty. Low-income families can face many barriers to meeting their basic needs, from lacking transportation, access to a grocery store or child care, to deeper challenges like illness, disability, addiction or mental health issues. Households led by single women with children have among the highest rates of food insecurity, with nearly one in three struggling to put food on the table before the pandemic hit, according to USDA.
Historically, there’s been bipartisan support for feeding Americans in need. There’s also broad agreement that allowing children, in particular, to go without enough food has devastating long-term costs to society.
“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable,” President Richard Nixon said in 1969 as he convened a special White House conference on hunger, a bipartisan effort that led to the creation of the food stamp program, as we know it now: a way to help millions of Americans purchase their own groceries.
But despite decades of nutrition aid, doled out over more than a dozen federal programs, the United States consistently ranks as having among the highest rates of food insecurity of any wealthy, developed country.
More broadly, the U.S. has long been seen as an outlier for its comparatively limited safety net, and is sometimes referred to as “the reluctant welfare state.” Other wealthy countries, like Canada and the United Kingdom, have more generous unemployment programs and provide allowances to help with the costs of raising children, on top of providing health care and other benefits that are broadly available, even to middle-income households.
By contrast, in the United States, there has been a much greater focus on ensuring aid goes primarily to low-income households that have met strict eligibility and income requirements. America’s two biggest safety net programs, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, (still known to many as “food stamps”), have fairly low income caps and are squarely aimed at providing in-kind benefits like medical coverage and food — not giving people money to spend how they see fit.
For example, SNAP gives a household a debit-like EBT card that can only be used to buy food at the grocery store, which means you can’t use it to buy toiletries or diapers. You also can’t use it to buy hot prepared foods like rotisserie chicken.
The federal government defines food insecurity as a household having “limited or uncertain access” to enough food at any point in the year. The Agriculture Department has closely tracked these rates each year since 1995. Just before the pandemic, USDA estimated that just over 10 percent of U.S. households were food insecure, the first time that the rate fell significantly below the previous low point recorded in 2007, at just over 11 percent.
It was, by all accounts, good news: Food insecurity was finally back to baseline after more than a decade of dwindling down from its recession peak, but that rate still meant more than 1 in 10 households and 35 million people were food-insecure, 5.3 million of whom are children.
This week, USDA released its first official estimates for food insecurity during the pandemic and the finding surprised a lot of people: The overall rate didn’t go up in 2020. It held steady. The rate of households experiencing very low food security was also virtually unchanged. The good news, however, obscures troubling disparities: Rates for Black and Hispanic households and households with children went up slightly.
“Food insecurity was a huge problem before the pandemic and it will be a huge problem after,” said Craig Gundersen, an economist specializing in food insecurity at Baylor University. Gundersen contends that Covid-19 ended up not having a big impact on food insecurity rates precisely because the federal government used so many levers to get aid to people.
“We know how to reduce food insecurity,” he added. “It may not be politically feasible, but we know how to do that.”
Ending food insecurity isn’t just a matter of charity. The status quo is expensive. Food insecurity and hunger cost about $160 billion per year in the U.S., according to one estimate, from lost productivity and increased health care costs.
The pandemic has offered a once-in-a-generation chance to rethink safety net programs, in some cases changing or expanding them in ways that were previously politically impossible.
This isn’t the first time that has happened; most American safety net programs have been born out of crisis. The Great Depression laid the groundwork for Social Security, unemployment insurance and what would later become welfare, or direct cash assistance for low-income families. The National School Lunch Program was launched in part to ensure America’s youth would be healthy enough to fight in the aftermath of World War II.
For most of the 20th century, Americans favored the idea that the government should provide for those in need, according to polls. Public support started to wane only in the 1980s amid a Republican-led backlash against government spending, something President Ronald Reagan seized upon, famously declaring “government is the problem.”
By the early 1990s, welfare reform had gained Democratic support, too, fed in part by racist tropes that falsely suggested Black single mothers were defrauding government programs in droves. President Bill Clinton pledged to "end welfare as we know it" and compromised with Republicans in Congress to pass welfare reform. That legislation gutted direct cash assistance, imposed new work requirements and put time limits on benefits. The policy was extremely successful at reducing the rolls, but economists are still fiercely debating whether it reduced poverty.
Two decades later, conservatives remain wary of government programs to end food insecurity, or poverty, or other social ills. Right-leaning think tanks, for example, often argue that programs like SNAP disincentivize work and create a culture of dependency, and that the surest path to prosperity is an improving economy and high levels of employment.
In July 2020, when Washington was debating whether more pandemic aid was needed, Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argued that the pandemic should not be used as a reason to expand safety net programs, citing the fact that poverty was at a near-historic low before disaster struck in March 2020.
“[M]indlessly expanding safety net programs in the wake of Covid-19 reinforces a broken approach that weakens the connection between government supports and work, impeding economic mobility for our country’s most vulnerable residents,” Rachidi wrote.
In an interview, Rachidi said she is shocked by just how fast the political pendulum has swung toward expanded benefits, saying it’s exactly what she warned about but “on steroids.”
It was politically unthinkable as recently as 2019, for example, that Washington would distribute direct cash assistance to millions of Americans with no strings attached, or permanently increase food stamp benefits, as the Biden administration did last month.
As SNAP has grown, both in scope and spending, the program has become “the new welfare” in terms of sparking the ire of Republicans who argue that too many people are getting assistance who don’t really need it.
The program, which is designed to automatically expand and contract with the economy, grew during the pandemic to serve 42 million people, which is roughly one in eight Americans (though still fewer than the peak of nearly 48 million using the program in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis). Spending on SNAP has nearly doubled as Washington has increased benefits during the crisis, costing taxpayers in the neighborhood of $100 billion this year.
Expanding programs and benefits was not the only way nutrition aid changed during the pandemic. The program also pivoted in major ways, changing rules and procedures to increase safety and reduce red tape. Face-to-face interviews for SNAP applications were temporarily waived, students no longer had to submit paperwork to qualify for free school meals, and there was a temporary boost to fruit and vegetable vouchers in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which is targeted to families with young children.
Before the pandemic, most SNAP participants couldn’t use their benefits to buy groceries online through grocery delivery services like Instacart. That has now changed. Before Covid hit, just over 20,000 SNAP households used their benefits online. By July 2021, more than 2.5 million SNAP households were using their benefits to buy groceries online, representing about 5 percent of SNAP redemptions, according to USDA.
The Biden administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill are now pressing to make some of the bigger pandemic safety changes permanent. Biden last month locked in a record permanent increase of SNAP benefits, boosting the average monthly benefits by about 27 percent.
Lawmakers are pushing for other major changes in the forthcoming budget reconciliation package, though the path forward for that bill remains uncertain. High on the list is extending the child tax credit, permanently making school meal benefits available during vacations and other closures, and expanding access to free meals in schools — all aimed at reducing food insecurity.
“We have the programs. We have the structure,” said Sergio Mata-Cisneros, a domestic policy analyst at Bread for the World. “We have the road map to end hunger — we can’t stop here.”
During the pandemic, for the first time in modern history, the U.S. government closely monitored how households handled a major economic crisis in near real time.
Starting in April 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau has conducted large bi-weekly surveys, tracking all sorts of measures of well-being, like whether a family is up to date on their rent or mortgage or whether they are struggling to get enough to eat. The current crisis and the unusually high level of data tracking has given policymakers an economic laboratory of sorts, where they can see the results of the various policy levers they’ve pulled in a relatively short period of time.
And what it showed was that Americans have been on a roller coaster of hardship during the pandemic — which makes sense when you consider the roller coaster of economic uncertainty and federal aid. For a brief time, in the spring of 2020, millions of low-income households were financially better off than they had been before the virus had upended the global economy. The initial lockdowns in March coincided with a large share of families receiving their annual Earned Income Tax Credit payments, a tax refund for low-income workers. Within days, Congress passed the CARES Act, a sweeping aid bill that included $1,200 stimulus checks and boosted unemployment benefits by $600 per week, a cash infusion that initially lifted some 18 million Americans out of poverty, even as the economy was in free fall.
Of course, this level of aid wasn’t sustained. Political deadlock took hold, with Democrats and Republicans disagreeing about whether another rescue package was needed. Congress didn’t clear a single pandemic aid bill from March until December. The effect of stimulus checks wore off. The unemployment “plus up” payments expired over the summer. Poverty and food hardship rates climbed back up, month by month, as households exhausted their lifelines and got further behind.
The peak of food hardship during the pandemic was actually in December 2020, right before lawmakers finally came to a deal. After the aid tap turned back on, food hardship rates started to fall. In January, another round of stimulus checks hit, then a 15 percent bump up in SNAP benefits. Within weeks, the decline started to look rather dramatic. In March, the American Rescue Plan stimulus checks arrived and rates dropped again. In three months, food insecurity was down 40 percent from its peak — an unprecedented decrease over a short period of time.
The poverty rate fell, too. Those stimulus checks and SNAP benefit increases drove overall hardship down sharply. Economists are now projecting that the poverty rate in the U.S. will be much lower in 2021 than it was before the pandemic, largely because of these interventions.
Researchers are only beginning to unpack what we’ve learned.
An early lesson is that giving people money helps a lot, and they tend to spend it on basic needs. It’s also far simpler to give people money than route it through programs that require any additional layers of bureaucracy.
But anti-hunger advocates are quick to point out that the influx of government aid still missed a lot of people, many of them at the very bottom of the income scale. People who are undocumented or unaware of the various programs they qualify for have not been reached. The top-line numbers for food insecurity and hunger are helpful indices for tracking the overall direction the country is going, but they also miss disparities among communities that are more vulnerable to economic shocks due to structural inequality and racism.
Hispanic households, for example, experience roughly double the rates of food insecurity compared to white households — something that was true before the pandemic and holds true still. The latest data from USDA shows that Black households now experience roughly triple the rate of food insecurity compared to white households, a gap that is widening.
“While it’s important to celebrate the impact of the response and you see that in the data, there is still a lot of work to be done to address the disparities that we see,” said Poonam Gupta, a research analyst at the Urban Institute.
Melissa Acedera, founder of Polo’s Pantry, a mobile food pantry that serves particularly vulnerable people in Los Angeles, including those who are unhoused in Skid Row and farmworkers in Southern California, said she’s seen absolutely no letup in demand for food aid locally despite the waves of aid from Washington.
“People miss out on so many benefits because they have no idea that they qualify for them,” she said.
While distribution of federal aid has been uneven, it’s been a lifeline for millions of households that not only survived but, in some cases, have been able to improve their financial stability. Tiffany Flennoy-Corder, a mother of six who lives in Nashville, said this is the first time in 17 years that she hasn’t been stressed about having enough food for her kids.
“I regularly just stop and thank the universe for the food security my family feels right now,” said Flennoy-Corder, who’s a full-time student and small business owner. New benefits to help replace meals missed at school and the child tax credit payments have been game-changing. She was able to save up and buy a deep freezer and also help some other families in need, knowing that she had enough for her own family.
“It should always be this way,” she said. “In this country, there should never be a food worry, especially if you’re trying to feed your kids.”
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