Harvesters, a private food bank, saw the amount of food distributed increase from 54 million pounds in 2019 to 65 million in 2020. In this picture, food is distributed at a drive-in in Kansas City, Kansas. (Harvesters — The Community Food Network)
Forty million people in the U.S. are having difficulty affording household expenses, and a little more than 25 million people say they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse survey data.
The survey is designed to collect data on household experiences during the pandemic as well as its economic recovery. The U.S. Census Bureau, working with other federal agencies to produce the data, started the surveys in April 2020.
The most recent survey, which was taken Feb. 1 to Feb. 13, also showed that 16% of those surveyed said it was very likely that they would be evicted in the next two months and 23.7% said it was somewhat likely. That’s up slightly from December, when 14.3% said it was very likely they’d be evicted in that time frame and 28% said it was somewhat likely.
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The data reflects that Americans are continuing to struggle with inflation, a struggle made worse for some by the disappearance of pandemic relief across the country. Although inflation is moderating, it’s still high. The Consumer Price Index, released on Feb, 14, showed that the price of meats, poultry, fish and eggs rose 0.7% over the month and eggs rose 8.5% over the same time period. The Federal Reserve continues to raise rates in an effort to bring down inflation, which it said “remains elevated.”
In the meantime, much of the pandemic relief funds have been allocated, with 87% of American Rescue Plan Act funds being appropriated already by December. The unwinding of pandemic Medicaid coverage will likely leave millions of people without coverage. Early in the pandemic, Congress provided a temporary increase in benefits for recipients of SNAP, the federal nutrition assistance program, but that ends March 1. When that happens, the average person will get about $90 less in SNAP benefits a month, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
SNAP emergency benefits expiring soon
As SNAP’s emergency benefits go away, the effects may eventually show up in Pulse data, said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at Brookings Institution and associate director of the Hamilton Project.
The current Pulse data shows that since expanded COVID-19 unemployment benefits ended in the fall of 2021, fewer people are relying on unemployment insurance to buy food. When asked how they had paid for food in the past seven days, 13 million said they used SNAP benefits compared to 1.8 million who said they used unemployment insurance benefits. That’s up from 12.7 million who relied on SNAP in January and 12.1 million in December. In the survey from Feb. 17 to March 1, 2021 — before expanded unemployment benefits ended — 11.9 million people used unemployment benefits to buy food and 10.8 million used SNAP benefits.
“What part of the safety net is still providing families with a material amount of income given all of the stuff that has gone away? And right now SNAP is the main program that’s doing that. Everything else is coming out of income, borrowing, spending down savings, etc.” Bauer explained.
Families of four at 200% of the poverty line are an example of who has the most to lose when emergency SNAP benefits go away, Bauer said.
“It’s families who normally, via the formula, would lose 30 cents for every dollar as you tick higher and higher up the income distribution who are going to see the biggest hit. Those are typically low-income workers,” she said.
In addition to these benefits drying up, Republican state lawmakers are targeting food stamps in a number of ways, such as adding stricter work requirements and limiting the food that qualifies. In Congress, House Republicans are using this year’s farm bill to restart a discussion on SNAP’s work requirements and waivers that exempt some recipients from certain SNAP rules.
Economic pain in the South
Southern states showed higher rates of financial stress in surveys collected in February, January, and December. Pulse data shows that in February, food scarcity rates were highest in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana, and in January, they were highest in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. Mississippi, Kentucky, and Texas were the highest in December. Difficulty paying for usual household expenses was highest in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana in February, followed by West Virginia and Kentucky, and in January, people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida said they struggled most with these expenses.
“In general, a lot of these measures of benefit generosity are lower in the South of the U.S. and it would make sense that at the expiration of the federal expansion, they’re reverting to a less generous state,” said Alex Bell, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California’s California Policy Lab.
Michael Leachman, senior vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said a lack of Medicaid expansion in many Southern states and stricter eligibility requirements for benefits may help to explain some of the data. With more pandemic aid ending, Americans all over the country will feel the pain of losing those resources, he said.
“The other provisions that were put in place during the height of the pandemic made a huge difference in terms of child poverty and other forms of hardship that people are experiencing,” he said. “… About 90% of [state ARPA funds] has already been allocated, and it’s made a huge difference in the lives of people who were particularly harmed, but with it winding down, even though the job market is relatively strong, the effects of the pandemic are lingering in all sorts of ways.”
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