Director of Research
Early data on rising food insecurity during the pandemic and deep economic crisis reveal how widespread the hardship is becoming, underscoring the need for a robust policy response — including raising maximum SNAP (food stamp) benefits and fixing SNAP limitations in the relief measures enacted thus far.
Nearly a third of non-elderly adults reported that their families spent less on food in the last month, according to a nationally representative Urban Institute survey with responses from late March and early April. That number rises to 46.5 percent among adults in families that experienced job or income loss. And it’s making it harder for families to get enough to eat: food insecurity is spiking, particularly among families with children.
Hardship isn’t limited to food insecurity, the data show. Over two-thirds of adults in families with income at or below the poverty level reported experiencing one or more hardships, such as being unable to pay rent or a mortgage or skipping medical care due to cost. Low-income families, families with children, and communities of color are among the hardest hit. Many were already struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table, and they may have significant trouble weathering the crisis on their own.
We called raising SNAP benefits now a “no-brainer” because doing so during the Great Recession boosted income and reduced hardship while generating economic stimulus to help convert the recession into an economic recovery. The 2009 Recovery Act’s SNAP benefit increase reduced very low food security (when at least one household member has to skip meals or otherwise eat less) among SNAP recipients at a time when it was expected to rise due to income and job losses.
The new survey findings are troubling and, even though they may not yet reflect the receipt of recently enacted relief benefits, we know that a more robust policy response is needed. The measures enacted to date that were meant to help families and individuals during the pandemic don’t provide enough for those at the highest risk of health and hardship. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, for example, lets states raise households’ SNAP benefits to the current maximum amount, but that doesn’t help families already getting the maximum. About 40 percent of SNAP households with the lowest incomes won’t benefit.
An elevated need for food assistance and economic relief will persist far longer than the official health emergency, and many of the provisions enacted to date to help families and individuals during the pandemic will likely end before the economy recovers. If policymakers don’t take the necessary steps, the rise in hardship and food need among families will likely become only clearer as more data become available.