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Without More Action, Policymakers Will Let Food Hardship Continue

September 24, 2020 at 2:30 PM

The government funding package that Congress expects to pass this week includes important nutrition assistance, but policymakers don’t seem likely to agree in the near term to a comprehensive COVID-19 relief package — even with the latest data again showing that millions of adults (and many of their children) are struggling to get enough to eat, and facing significant housing hardship, which we detail further here. The failure of policymakers to enact comprehensive relief would mark an abdication of responsibility.

Some 10 percent of adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days, according to the latest Census data, collected September 2 through 14. As we’ve discussed, this figure is up significantly from pre-pandemic levels; only about 3.7 percent of adults reported that their household had “not enough to eat” sometimes or often at some point in the 12 months of 2019. The pandemic has also exacerbated longstanding inequities and discrimination in jobs, wealth, and income, and, as a result, the share of Black and Latino adults experiencing such hardship is more than double that of white adults. (See chart.)

The share of adults struggling to find enough to eat is about the same as in the data from August 19 to 31, which also showed 10 percent of adults reporting this hardship. As we’ve explained, the figure is not comparable with earlier weeks of this survey, from June through July, due to differences in survey methodology. Nevertheless, this survey has shown persistently and significantly higher food need during the pandemic than before it.

Of particular concern, millions of children aren’t getting enough to eat, as the data show. Some 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. (In the figures from late August, which also showed 9 to 14 percent of adults reporting that their kids weren’t getting enough to eat, that translated into 7 to 11 million kids.)

The government funding package, which the House has passed and the Senate is expected to, extends and increases the flexibility in an important program called Pandemic-EBT, which replaces lost school meals for students learning virtually. Without congressional action, this program would end September 30. The package also allows states to extend flexibilities in SNAP (food stamps), school meals, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The Families First Act of March gave states more flexibility in administering these programs contingent on approval by the Agriculture Department and a federal public health emergency declaration (and in the case of SNAP waivers, both state and federal declarations).

While these provisions are important and necessary, policymakers must do more to ensure that families can meet their basic needs. Six months into the pandemic and economic response, hardship persists for many reasons. Many job losses became permanent as businesses closed, families exhausted their savings, food prices rose significantly, and rent and other bills that families have had trouble paying have mounted.

The Families First Act allowed states to issue emergency SNAP allotments to help many SNAP participants better afford food, which has proved essential, but the poorest SNAP households were left out of this relief. Temporarily increasing SNAP’s maximum benefit would help all households better afford food. Other assistance to help struggling families, such as extending federal supplements to unemployment benefits and providing rental and other housing assistance, is also necessary to help families meet their basic needs. And states, which are facing large budget shortfalls because their revenues shrunk considerably due to the current recession, need substantial federal aid to mitigate the job losses and service cuts they will otherwise have to impose.

While the House passed a comprehensive relief package in May, including provisions to boost SNAP, neither the Senate’s COVID relief proposals nor the President’s executive actions included any food assistance or comprehensive relief that would adequately address food and other needs.

Every day without a comprehensive COVID relief package is another day that policymakers are letting hardship continue.


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