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Food Need Very High Compared to Pre-Pandemic Levels, Making Relief Imperative

Update, December 3, 2020: we’ve corrected an error in this post regarding the share of adults reporting that their household had “not enough to eat” in 2019.

With millions of Americans still not getting enough to eat during the COVID-19 crisis and recession, Congress’ return gives lawmakers the opportunity to boost SNAP (food stamps) and other nutrition benefits to help Americans put food on the table and help the economy recover. Their failure to provide significant nutrition assistance — similar to what the House included in the Heroes Act in May — in the days ahead would be unconscionable.

The Census’ Household Pulse Survey (collected over recent months and through late August) and other surveys reveal an ongoing and urgent crisis, with millions struggling to pay for food, housing, and other basic needs. About 10 percent of all adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days, according to the latest data, collected August 19 through 31. The figures are even higher for Black and Latino adults, with 19 percent of Black and 17 percent of Latino adults reporting this hardship, compared to 7 percent of white adults. These disproportionate impacts reflect harsh, longstanding inequities, often stemming from structural racism. For example, Black and Latino people disproportionately work in low-paying industries with deep job losses during the recession.

Also alarming, the data show, 9 to 14 percent of adults with children reported that their children sometimes or often didn’t eat enough in the last seven days because they couldn’t afford it, and that translates into millions of children. As we’ve written, children not getting enough to eat is especially concerning because it can lead to worse developmental, health, and even economic outcomes for them down the road. (Note that the most recent Pulse survey results are not comparable to data from prior weeks due to some methodological issues.)

We can see how much higher these figures are than before COVID-19 thanks to similar questions in the Household Pulse and annual food insecurity data for 2019, which the Agriculture Department (USDA) released this week. About 3.4 percent of adults reported that their household had “not enough to eat” sometimes or often in the 12 months of 2019, CBPP analysis of these USDA data show, compared to about 10 percent of adults reporting this problem in the past week in the August Household Pulse data. Similarly, about 1 percent of adults with children in the 2019 USDA data reported that children were sometimes or often not eating enough at some point in the last 30 days, compared to up to 14 percent reporting this problem within the last seven days in the Pulse data.

While differences between the surveys make precise comparisons hard, as we explain here, similar questions in both surveys offer the best comparison point available between pre-pandemic and current conditions. The data for 2020 show how the share of households struggling to put food on the table has skyrocketed compared to before COVID-19.

Broader measures from USDA show that before the pandemic, food insecurity had been gradually easing. The share of households who were “food insecure” in 2019, meaning at least some members of the household had difficulty affording adequate food to live a healthy life at some point in the last year, fell to 10.5 percent of households. This figure, which grew substantially in 2007, stayed high through 2011, and then started slowly falling, finally reaching — in 2019 — levels from before the Great Recession of about a decade ago. About 4.1 percent of households reported the more severe metric of “very low food security,” meaning they took such steps as restricting food intake at least some point in the year; this figure also took about a decade to decline to 2007 levels after its post-Great Recession peak of 5.7 percent.

Food insecurity has long been a problem for too many people, but extraordinarily high levels of need in the last several months have more than erased recent years’ slow, post-Great Recession gains. The number of families having difficulty affording food has exploded during COVID-19. Additional federal assistance from earlier this year has helped, but more is needed. For example, while some school-aged children may have access to school meals as some schools reopen with in-person instruction, many children are too young to attend school or are left out of this help in schools that are offering virtual instruction. And this year’s main program to replace school meals, Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT), expires at the end of September.

Policymakers must address this problem in the next economic relief package. The problem of food hardship is clear and evidence shows that raising SNAP benefits and offering other nutrition supports, such as P-EBT, reduce hardship and provide economic stimulus by putting more money in the hands of those who will likely spend it the fastest. But the White House and Senate Republican leadership will need to change course because, so far, they’ve offered inadequate relief proposals that include no additional food assistance.