Could Covid-19 finally end hunger in America?

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The picture isn’t unclouded: The new data also shows that the food insecurity gap between Black and white households widened in 2020. But advocates are now hopeful the pandemic response will actually drive rates down below pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021, leaving millions of families better off than before the crisis. By comparison, it took the country more than a decade to rebound from a big spike in food insecurity in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

What’s more, thanks to the tracking by the Census Bureau, we know how Americans are using the aid: The No. 1 thing households report buying with the money is food, followed by utilities and other necessities.

All of this has some policy makers wondering: If we know what drives food insecurity down, why not drive it down to zero? Why not end hunger in the wealthiest country on earth?

“We shouldn’t have to wait for a once-in-a-century pandemic to think boldly about addressing fundamental injustices in our society,” said House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the most vocal anti-hunger advocate in Congress, in an interview. “We all ought to want to fix this. There’s enough reason to compel the left and the right and everybody in between to hang their hat on a bold initiative to eradicate hunger, once and for all, in this country.”

But ending hunger is not something Congress has been particularly focused on. Despite periodic attempts to tackle the problem, policy in Washington tends to get mired in deep-seated debates over the size and role of government. Is it Washington’s job to make sure everyone can afford to feed their families?

Thanks to Covid-19, the question facing policymakers now is a little different. The pandemic has shown us how to slash hunger in America. So do we want to? At what cost? Is it more expensive to end hunger or live with it?

The fact that hunger persists in the United States, the richest country on earth, has always been a tragic paradox. Economists have lots of explanations for why millions of Americans struggle to access enough food, even when the economy is doing well. Chronically low wages mean that workers, even working full-time, can’t cover the basic costs of living. Long before the pandemic hit, millions of low-income workers were fighting to survive each month, living paycheck to paycheck, skipping meals to save money to pay the rent or medical bills.

Other pieces of the puzzle are trickier to quantify, but many are inextricably linked to poverty. Low-income families can face many barriers to meeting their basic needs, from lacking transportation, access to a grocery store or child care, to deeper challenges like illness, disability, addiction or mental health issues. Households led by single women with children have among the highest rates of food insecurity, with nearly one in three struggling to put food on the table before the pandemic hit, according to USDA.

Historically, there’s been bipartisan support for feeding Americans in need. There’s also broad agreement that allowing children, in particular, to go without enough food has devastating long-term costs to society.

“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable,” President Richard Nixon said in 1969 as he convened a special White House conference on hunger, a bipartisan effort that led to the creation of the food stamp program, as we know it now: a way to help millions of Americans purchase their own groceries.

But despite decades of nutrition aid, doled out over more than a dozen federal programs, the United States consistently ranks as having among the highest rates of food insecurity of any wealthy, developed country.

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More broadly, the U.S. has long been seen as an outlier for its comparatively limited safety net, and is sometimes referred to as “the reluctant welfare state.” Other wealthy countries, like Canada and the United Kingdom, have more generous unemployment programs and provide allowances to help with the costs of raising children, on top of providing health care and other benefits that are broadly available, even to middle-income households.

By contrast, in the United States, there has been a much greater focus on ensuring aid goes primarily to low-income households that have met strict eligibility and income requirements. America’s two biggest safety net programs, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, (still known to many as “food stamps”), have fairly low income caps and are squarely aimed at providing in-kind benefits like medical coverage and food — not giving people money to spend how they see fit.

For example, SNAP gives a household a debit-like EBT card that can only be used to buy food at the grocery store, which means you can’t use it to buy toiletries or diapers. You also can’t use it to buy hot prepared foods like rotisserie chicken.

The federal government defines food insecurity as a household having “limited or uncertain access” to enough food at any point in the year. The Agriculture Department has closely tracked these rates each year since 1995. Just before the pandemic, USDA estimated that just over 10 percent of U.S. households were food insecure, the first time that the rate fell significantly below the previous low point recorded in 2007, at just over 11 percent.

It was, by all accounts, good news: Food insecurity was finally back to baseline after more than a decade of dwindling down from its recession peak, but that rate still meant more than 1 in 10 households and 35 million people were food-insecure, 5.3 million of whom are children.

This week, USDA released its first official estimates for food insecurity during the pandemic and the finding surprised a lot of people: The overall rate didn’t go up in 2020. It held steady. The rate of households experiencing very low food security was also virtually unchanged. The good news, however, obscures troubling disparities: Rates for Black and Hispanic households and households with children went up slightly.

“Food insecurity was a huge problem before the pandemic and it will be a huge problem after,” said Craig Gundersen, an economist specializing in food insecurity at Baylor University. Gundersen contends that Covid-19 ended up not having a big impact on food insecurity rates precisely because the federal government used so many levers to get aid to people.

“We know how to reduce food insecurity,” he added. “It may not be politically feasible, but we know how to do that.”

Ending food insecurity isn’t just a matter of charity. The status quo is expensive. Food insecurity and hunger cost about $160 billion per year in the U.S., according to one estimate, from lost productivity and increased health care costs.

The pandemic has offered a once-in-a-generation chance to rethink safety net programs, in some cases changing or expanding them in ways that were previously politically impossible.

This isn’t the first time that has happened; most American safety programs have been born out of crisis. The Great Depression laid the groundwork for Social Security, unemployment insurance and what would later become welfare, or direct cash assistance for low-income families. The National School Lunch Program was launched in part to ensure America’s youth would be healthy enough to fight in the aftermath of World War II.

For most of the 20th century, Americans favored the idea that the government should provide for those in need, according to polls. Public support started to wane only in the 1980s amid a Republican-led backlash against government spending, something President Ronald Reagan seized upon, famously declaring “government is the problem.”

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