Congressional Inaction Exacerbates Hardship
Effective Tools Are Available and Should Be Used
September 14, 2020
As evidence of profound hardship resulting from the COVID-19 health and economic crises mounts, powerful tools to mitigate suffering and bolster economic activity will be unavailable to state and local government without congressional action. A prime example is Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) — a new program, enacted in March 2020 and set to expire at the end of September 2020, that gives families benefits they can use to buy groceries to replace the free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches their children missed while schools were closed due to the pandemic in the 2019-2020 school year. Although it was optional, every state implemented P-EBT, providing families with school-age children benefits ranging from approximately $250 to $450 per child to replace meals missed during the spring.
"Extending P-EBT in combination with other measures to provide additional food assistance, increase income, and stabilize housing would provide ongoing, needed relief."
Extending P-EBT in combination with other measures to provide additional food assistance, increase income, and stabilize housing would provide ongoing, needed relief. But congressional inaction has stymied P-EBT’s extension and other federal supports that would mitigate hardship, including:
- Providing a temporary 15 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) benefits, akin to a 2009 increase that helped lessen food insecurity (the lack of consistent access to nutritious food because of limited resources) during the Great Recession.
- Extending the federal supplement to unemployment benefits through January 2021 along with policies that expand eligibility and increase the number of weeks that unemployed workers can receive benefits.
- Providing assistance to meet the housing needs of people with low incomes, including funding for Housing Choice Vouchers targeted to people with the lowest incomes and highest long-term housing needs; rental assistance funding to prevent evictions once federal, state, and local moratoriums end; funding for existing federal rental assistance programs to protect current recipients; and additional funding for homeless services programs to ensure people are safe during the pandemic.
Hardship is falling disproportionately on Black and Latino families as a result of longstanding inequities and structural racism, so programs that mitigate hardship would especially help these households.
Families of Millions of Children Are Struggling to Afford Rent and Food
Tens of millions of people are out of work and struggling to afford adequate food and pay the rent, data from the Census Bureau and the Department of Labor show. The impacts of the pandemic and the economic fallout have been widespread, but are particularly prevalent among Black, Latino, Indigenous, and immigrant households. These disproportionate impacts reflect harsh, longstanding inequities — often stemming from structural racism — in education, employment, housing, and health care that the current crisis is exacerbating.
More than 23 million people who want to be working are jobless or working reduced hours. Moreover, the majority of jobs lost in the crisis have been in industries that pay low average wages. The resulting loss of income is making it harder for families to afford basics like housing and food.
Renters who are parents or otherwise live with children are nearly twice as likely to be behind on rent compared to adults not living with anyone under age 18. Approximately 8 million children lived in a household that was behind on rent for the week ending July 21.
In addition, 11 to 20 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, well above the pre-pandemic figure. This translates into an estimated 9 to 17 million children who live in a household in which the children were not eating enough because the household couldn’t afford it. More than two-thirds of those children (70 percent) were enrolled in school. Appendix Table 1 shows state-by-state estimates of the low end of our estimated range of children who live in a household in which the children were not eating enough because the household couldn’t afford it.
These data illustrate that households with children are facing especially high hardship rates, which research has shown can have serious detrimental effects on children’s long-term health and financial security. In the short run, parents are reporting worsening mental health for themselves and worsening behavioral health for their children, in tandem with worsening material hardship. Approximately 19 million children, or 1 in 4 children, live in a household that isn’t getting enough to eat, is behind on rent or mortgage payments, or both.
These levels of hardship are substantially higher among Black and Latino children, reflecting longstanding inequities that the current crisis has exacerbated; 42 percent of Black children and 36 percent of Latino children live in a household that’s behind on rent or mortgage and/or didn’t get enough to eat. Appendix tables 2 and 3 show state-by-state estimates by race of children who live in households below 130 percent of the federal poverty line and 185 percent of the federal poverty line, the income limits for free and reduced-price meals respectively. These children would benefit from extending P-EBT and other benefits that alleviate hardship.
Notably, these hardship data predate the expiration of the $600 weekly supplemental Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation on July 31, but key measures of hardship were already rising in mid-July. Future hardship trends will depend on several factors including the incidence of COVID-19 and the status of the job market. Congress could mitigate hardship by providing additional assistance through proven programs.
Pandemic EBT’s Successful Implementation Gives Reason to Extend the Program
The concept of P-EBT is simple: while schools are closed, provide to families with children approved for free or reduced-price meals the funds that otherwise would have gone to schools to provide them with breakfast and lunch. But this was an entirely new program requiring cross-agency collaboration, data matching, and mailing benefit cards to millions of families, all while schools were closed and state agencies were operating remotely and helping low-income families cope with the pandemic in multiple other ways.
Yet every single state developed a mechanism to get benefits to more than half of all school-age children in the country in a matter of weeks or months. Over the past couple of months, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research & Action Center have surveyed and interviewed state officials to document how they implemented P-EBT. As is evident in the profiles we developed of each state’s program, our compilation of state materials, and the state-by-state summary of implementation plans in Appendix tables 4 and 5, implementation took tremendous effort, creativity, and agility by state officials and other stakeholders.
P-EBT Reduced Children’s Food Hardship
State efforts paid off. Researchers at the Brookings Institution used the variation in when states issued P-EBT benefits to SNAP recipients to examine the impact of those benefits on food hardship. They found that P-EBT reduced food hardship faced by the lowest-income children by 30 percent in the week following its disbursement and lifted an estimated 2.7 to 3.9 million children out of hunger.
Despite these striking findings, food hardship among children and their families remained high even after P-EBT benefits were issued, which shows the severity of hardship families are facing and that extending P-EBT alone is not sufficient. But extending P-EBT in combination with other measures to increase income, stabilize housing, and provide additional food assistance would provide relief on a more ongoing basis.
States Are Prepared to Offer P-EBT Again
This new initiative required states to hastily design and implement a program to deliver substantial benefits to millions of families quickly at a time of enormous need. To deliver benefits, states had to develop a new infrastructure, which typically entailed multiple steps. They had to build a statewide list of children approved for free or reduced-price meals, sometimes drawing on data maintained by hundreds of school districts. They matched student data against SNAP data to issue benefits on existing cards to eligible families that were already receiving SNAP benefits. They identified current mailing addresses for other eligible families to mail them new cards. Some states collected address information directly from families via a new application. States took additional steps to reach groups especially likely to be experiencing additional hardship, such as families that were homeless when the pandemic hit. Meanwhile, states had to explain the new program to school districts, county SNAP offices, and families, and establish call centers or web-based systems to respond to inquiries from families or troubleshoot when eligible children didn’t receive benefits.
Outside of a pandemic, states and school districts might have spent more time debating their ability to implement a P-EBT program. Discussions about costs and responsibility might have slowed the process. But in every state, leaders responsible for ensuring schoolchildren’s access to healthy food — both through school food programs and SNAP — resolved tough implementation challenges and jurisdictional issues to launch P-EBT. This is a remarkable achievement and demonstrates that we can continue this fall to meet the food needs of children who are learning virtually.
Having implemented the program for the 2019-2020 school year, states have the structure in place to deliver benefits again for the 2020-2021 school year, during which many schools are offering virtual instruction to some or all students as a result of COVID-19. To be sure, states encountered challenges and learned lessons in the spring, and schools are operating under more complicated schedules of in-person and virtual learning than they were in the spring. But states are now well-positioned to offer benefits for the 2020-2021 school year for as long as some students are not able to return to school buildings.
Legislation Extending P-EBT Is Needed
The original P-EBT authority extends to September 30, allowing approved states to provide benefits for the early weeks of the new school year. The Department of Agriculture, which oversees P-EBT, has notified states that they can submit a plan for approval to offer benefits through September. However, the program expires in just a few weeks — even though many school districts have already announced that some or all students will be learning virtually long past September 30.
To address this gap, the next COVID-19 relief package should extend and expand P-EBT benefits through fiscal year 2021 to mitigate children’s food hardship, ease the budgets of millions of families that have lost income, and infuse local economies with additional spending. Without such an extension, states will be deprived of a proven tool to help families struggling with severe hardship. Further, such an extension is needed quickly to provide states the opportunity to develop plans for issuing new benefits before the current authority runs out and to reduce the gap between when school meals are missed and when benefits arrive.
The P-EBT rules quickly adopted in March need to be updated to facilitate administration and access in light of the various ways that schools are operating in the 2020-2021 school year. Some schools are open fully for in-person instruction, allowing students to receive school breakfast and lunch each school day and eliminating the need for P-EBT benefits. Other schools are using a full virtual-instruction model. Still others are using a hybrid approach, providing in-person instruction to some students some of the time while offering virtual instruction for students at higher health risk or to create enough space in the building for social distancing, limiting access to school meals.
P-EBT benefits are a critical way to help prevent children from going hungry when they can’t consistently get meals at school. P-EBT benefits would also help ensure that decisions about whether to keep schools open are driven by public health considerations around COVID, rather than by a concern that children will go hungry. School districts worked valiantly to provide grab-and-go meals in the spring and are likely to do so again, but those programs reached only a fraction of the children who would have received free or reduced-price school meals if schools had been open. Picking up several days of prepared meals might not be feasible for working parents, or families living in rural areas or otherwise a long distance from the school pickup site, and might not be advisable for those at higher health risk. States need the flexibility to ensure that children who are not consistently getting meals at school receive P-EBT without having to determine each child’s school schedule.
P-EBT also must be expanded to two groups who were left out. P-EBT should be extended to Puerto Rico, which operates the federal school meals programs on the same basis as the states but was inadvertently left out, resulting in close to 300,000 children in Puerto Rico’s public schools missing out on P-EBT benefits.
P-EBT should also be extended to low-income children who are too young to be enrolled in public school. Families with young children, including infants and toddlers, are disproportionately represented among those that haven’t received a SNAP benefit increase during the pandemic because they were already poor enough to receive the maximum SNAP benefit. As a result, families with young children who were receiving free or reduced-price meals in child care might actually be receiving less food assistance now than they were before the pandemic.
The House-passed Heroes Act would extend P-EBT through 2021, allow Puerto Rico to offer P-EBT if feasible, and allow states to provide benefits to younger low-income children. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced two coronavirus relief packages, the HEALS proposal and a narrower relief package. Neither of these includes any nutrition assistance provisions, such as an extension or expansion of the P-EBT program or enhanced SNAP benefits, to help struggling households afford food. Neither package has advanced in the Senate, with the HEALS proposal not being considered and the narrower relief package failing to advance on a procedural vote.
As Congress and the Administration negotiate a bipartisan relief package, they must address this omission and extend and expand the P-EBT program, while making technical changes to facilitate implementation in school districts offering a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning.
Although sobering data about the suffering caused by the health and economic crises associated with COVID-19 continues to emerge, there are proven mechanisms to reduce hardship. P-EBT is a striking example because states had to develop a new program swiftly under difficult circumstances; although P-EBT was optional, every single state implemented it. With the support of the federal government, states and school districts helped millions of families meet their food needs. This proven solution can continue to play this role so long as schools are offering virtual learning.
P-EBT is just one example of how federal COVID-19 relief effectively helped families with low incomes before the pandemic or that lost income as a result. Other effective mechanisms include increasing SNAP and unemployment benefits, providing additional rental assistance, and helping people currently experiencing homelessness.
Congress must act now to deploy much-needed help to millions of struggling Americans. Every day that Congress fails to act, it fails families that are scraping together rent to avoid eviction and children who are not getting enough to eat, including children in Black and Latino families who are disproportionately suffering the health and economic consequences of the pandemic. Congress must give states effective tools to mitigate hardship.
|APPENDIX TABLE 1|
|Number of schoolchildren in households with children where the household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last 7 days and children sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat because the adults couldn’t afford enough food|
|District of Columbia||17,600|
|APPENDIX TABLE 2|
|Three-year averages of the number of children between 5 and 17 years of age in households at or below 130% of the federal poverty level, by race/ethnicity, 2016-2018|
|State||Asian, not Latino||Black, not Latino||Latino (of any race)||White, not Latino||Another race or multiple races, not Latino|
|District of Columbia||*||20,600||3,900||*||*|
|APPENDIX TABLE 3|
|Three-year averages of the number of children between 5 and 17 years of age in households at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, by race/ethnicity, 2016-2018|
|State||Asian, not Latino||Black, not Latino||Latino (of any race)||White, not Latino||Another race or multiple races, not Latino|
|District of Columbia||*||27,700||4,700||600||*|
|APPENDIX TABLE 4|
|Children eligible for P-EBT benefits, the maximum benefit per child, and the potential total amount of benefits to households statewide, 2019-2020 school year|
P-EBT benefit per child
|Potential total benefits
|District of Columbia||86,415||$387.60||$33 million|
|New Hampshire||45,190||$376.00||$17 million|
|New Jersey||594,207||$416.10||$247 million|
|New Mexico||245,000||$399.00||$98 million|
|New York||2,077,711||$420.00||$873 million|
|North Carolina||903,320||$370.00||$334 million|
|North Dakota||39,760||$273.00||$11 million|
|Rhode Island||74,622||$387.60||$29 million|
|South Carolina||467,000||$330.00||$154 million|
|South Dakota||62,000||$285.00||$18 million|
|Virgin Islands||13,000||$379.00||$5 million|
|West Virginia||204,542||$313.50||$64 million|
|appendix table 5|
|Overview of states’ P-EBT implementation for the 2019-2020 school year|
|State||Plan approval date||Benefit issuance date range||Method for issuing P-EBT benefits to eligible children not receiving SNAP (or other selected benefits)a|
|Alabama||4/21/20||May - September||X||Xb|
|Alaska||6/5/20||August - September||X|
|Arizona||4/17/20||May - August||X||Xc|
|Arkansas||5/21/20||June - September||X||Xd|
|California||4/23/20||May - August||X|
|Colorado||5/18/20||July - September||X|
|Connecticut||4/24/20||May - June||X|
|Delaware||4/30/20||May - June||X|
|District of Columbia||5/19/20||May - August||X|
|Florida||5/27/20||June - September||X|
|Georgia||6/5/20||July - September||X|
|Hawai’i||5/28/20||June - July||X|
|Idaho||8/14/20||August - September||X|
|Illinois||4/17/20||April - September||X|
|Indiana||5/14/20||May - Unknown||X|
|Iowa||5/5/20||July - August||X|
|Kansas||4/25/20||May - September||Xe||Xf|
|Kentucky||5/19/20||May - September||X|
|Louisiana||5/14/20||June - September||X|
|Maine||5/5/20||May - July||X|
|Maryland||4/28/20||May - June||X|
|Massachusetts||4/29/20||May - June||X|
|Michigan||4/9/20||April - September||X|
|Minnesota||5/27/20||June - September||X|
|Mississippi||6/2/20||June - August||X|
|Missouri||5/15/20||May - September||X|
|Montana||6/26/20||July - September||X||Xg|
|Nebraska||6/16/20||July - September||X|
|Nevada||6/10/20||July - September||X|
|New Hampshire||5/12/20||Unknown - September||X|
|New Jersey||5/8/20||July - September||X|
|New Mexico||4/28/20||June - September||X|
|New York||5/6/20||May - September||X|
|North Carolina||4/16/20||May - June||X|
|North Dakota||5/1/20||May - September||X|
|Ohio||5/11/20||June - September||X|
|Oklahoma||6/26/20||July - August||X|
|Oregon||4/29/20||May - September||X|
|Pennsylvania||5/8/20||May - August||X|
|Rhode Island||4/10/20||April - June||X|
|South Carolina||6/17/20||July - September||X|
|South Dakota||6/18/20||June - August||X|
|Tennessee||5/19/20||June - September||X|
|Texas||5/8/20||May - September||X|
|Utah||7/9/20||July - September||X|
|Vermont||5/4/20||May - September||X|
|Virgin Islands||6/10/20||August - September||X|
|Virginia||4/25/20||May - June||X|
|Washington||5/22/20||June - September||X|
|West Virginia||4/30/20||May - September||X|
|Wisconsin||4/22/20||May - September||X|
|Wyoming||4/16/20||June - July||X|
 Stacy Dean, Zoë Neuberger, and Dottie Rosenbaum are with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Crystal FitzSimons and Etienne Melcher Philbin are with the Food Research & Action Center.
 See Families First Coronavirus Response Act, P.L. 116-127, https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hr6201/BILLS-116hr6201enr.pdf.
 For more information about the 2009 increase and a discussion of the importance of providing a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits now, as well as several other important improvements in federal nutrition programs, see Dottie Rosenbaum, Stacy Dean, and Zoë Neuberger, “The Case for Boosting SNAP Benefits in Next Major Economic Response Package,” CBPP, updated May 22, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/the-case-for-boosting-snap-benefits-in-next-major-economic-response-package. For more information on the positive impacts of prior SNAP boosts on health and the economy, and why SNAP boosts are needed now, see https://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/snap-initiatives-to-make-snap-benefits-more-adequate.pdf and https://frac.org/blog/this-labor-day-america-needs-heroes.
 For a discussion of the importance of these changes to unemployment benefits and their potential to mitigate racial and ethnic unemployment disparities, see Chad Stone and Sharon Parrott, “Many Unemployed Workers Will Exhaust Jobless Benefits This Year If More Weeks of Benefits Aren’t in Relief Package,” CBPP, August 6, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/economy/many-unemployed-workers-will-exhaust-jobless-benefits-this-year-if-more-weeks-of and Chad Stone, “Robust Unemployment Insurance, Other Relief Needed to Mitigate Racial and Ethnic Employment Disparities,” CBPP, August 5, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/economy/robust-unemployment-insurance-other-relief-needed-to-mitigate-racial-and-ethnic.
 For a discussion of the importance of providing housing assistance, see Peggy Bailey and Douglas Rice, “Pandemic Relief Must Include Comprehensive Housing Assistance for People Experiencing the Most Severe Hardship,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 27, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/housing/pandemic-relief-must-include-comprehensive-housing-assistance-for-people.
 The information in this section is drawn from CBPP, “Tracking the Covid-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Outcomes,” updated September 11, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and.
 For a discussion of findings of various recent studies on parents’ mental health during the pandemic, see Jessica Grose, “The Pandemic Is a ‘Mental Health Crisis’ for Parents,” New York Times, September 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/09/parenting/mental-health-parents-coronavirus.html.
 Between March and June 2020, 27 percent of parents in a national survey reported worsening mental health for themselves, and 14 percent reported worsening behavioral health for their children. See Stephen W. Patrick et al., “Well-being of Parents and Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A National Survey,” Pediatrics, https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2020/07/22/peds.2020-016824.full.pdf.
 Guam did not apply to offer benefits. Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa were not eligible to apply. The District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands are providing P-EBT benefits.
 See www.cbpp.org/pebt for links to a profile for each state (which includes how the state identified eligible children, issued benefits, and responded to inquiries from families) and our compilation of state materials (including websites, benefit applications, and outreach materials). A report summarizing our findings, case studies of eight states, and state-by-state tables describing implementation features will soon be available at that site.
 The researchers focused on households receiving SNAP benefits because states generally issued P-EBT benefits to these households first. Lauren Bauer et al., “The Effect of Pandemic EBT on Measures of Food Hardship,” July 2020, https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/P-EBT_LO_7.30.pdf.
 This study examined three measures of food hardship — food insecurity, the share of households reporting sometimes or often not having enough to eat, and the share reporting very low food security among children in their households. The 30 percent reduction was in the share reporting very low food security among children in their households.
 The Food and Nutrition Service’s Regional Offices provided guidance, which is still evolving, to states via email in late August and early September.
 Education Week, “Map: Where Are Schools Open?” updated September 3, 2020, https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-covid-19-schools-open-closed.html.
 Cory Turner, ‘“Children Are Going Hungry’: Why Schools Are Struggling To Feed Students,” NPR, September 8, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/08/908442609/children-are-going-hungry-why-schools-are-struggling-to-feed-students.
 See Javier Balmaceda, “Without Boost in Next COVID-19 Relief Bill, Puerto Rico Faces Deep Food Aid Cuts,” CBPP, July 28, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/without-boost-in-next-covid-19-relief-bill-puerto-rico-faces-deep-food-aid-cuts and Rosenbaum, Dean, and Neuberger, op. cit.
 See H.R. 6800, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6800.