A huge increase in federal food aid kept the number of U.S. households considered “food insecure” from rising during 2020, despite the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that more than one in 10 U.S. households was short of food at some point last year, and that racial and regional disparities in hunger increased despite the surge in federal aid.
Now, however, with the pandemic surging back throughout the country, the assistance programs that prevented an untold number of American families from facing food shortages last year are beginning to expire, raising the possibility that more Americans could soon find themselves going hungry.
The USDA report issued Wednesday found that 10.5% of U.S. households lacked access to “enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members” for at least part of 2020, a percentage identical to the finding in the previous year’s survey.
The survey also tracks people with “very low food security,” defined as a situation in which “one or more household members experienced reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns … because of limited money and other resources for obtaining food.” The subset judged to have “very low food security” at some point in 2020 made up 3.9% of all households.
Aid programs broadly effective
As part of the federal response to the pandemic, a number of changes were made to government food-assistance programs. People enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the federal food stamp program — were automatically made eligible for the program’s highest level of assistance. Other programs were put in place to provide supplemental benefits that gave low-income pregnant women, as well as children, access to fresh vegetables, fruit and cheese.
On top of direct food assistance, the federal government authorized the extension of unemployment insurance benefits as well as a $300 weekly supplement to those benefits.
The USDA study did not specifically tie increased benefits to the fact that hunger rates remained stable during the pandemic, but anti-hunger groups said the connection was clear.
“The fact that the numbers around overall hunger in America did not drastically increase shows that the route and the steps that the federal government and that the Congress and administration took throughout the year were the right approach, and that our nutrition programs work,” said Eric Mitchell, executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger.
Racial disparities found
While the overall numbers paint a picture of an effective pandemic response, the details demonstrate that there are significant holes in the social safety net lawmakers tried to augment last year.
The rate of food insecurity among white, non-Hispanic households actually decreased during the pandemic year, from 7.9% to 7.1%. However, among Black households, food insecurity affected 21.7% in 2020, an increase from 19.1% the previous year. The rate of food insecurity also rose in Hispanic households, but the change was not statistically significant.
Overall, a Black household was more than three times as likely to suffer food insecurity in 2020 as a white household. Hispanic households were 2.4 times as likely to be short on food as white households.
(The USDA report codes the race of a household by determining the race of a single “reference person,” typically the owner of the residence or the person whose name appears on a rental agreement, and does not break out multiracial households.)
Regional and household differences
The survey also found that rates of hunger in the Northeast, Midwest and West all fell year-over-year, though the drop was statistically significant only in the Midwest. In the South, however, hunger rose by a statistically significant amount, from 11.2% in 2019 to 12.3% in 2020.
Households with children were significantly more likely to face food insecurity than the average, at 14.8%, and that percentage rose to 15.3% if any of those children were under 6 years old.
“The disparities were there prior to COVID,” said Mitchell, “If anything, [the pandemic] exacerbated those disparities … and made them even more alarming.”
Aid programs set to expire
This month, many of the programs that allowed Americans to keep food on the table through the first 20 months of the pandemic are beginning to expire. The enhanced unemployment benefit payment ended as of this week, and Congress failed to extend a moratorium on evictions that had been preventing people behind on their rent from losing their homes.
The expanded SNAP benefit will expire at the end of this month, as will the program providing some low-income families access to fresh foods.
“Congress and administration need to come together to find solutions to be able to extend the changes that were implemented or, better yet, make them permanent,” said Mitchell. “There’s potential for this to happen in Washington, but we’re going to have to create the political will to make it reality.”
While combating hunger is a bipartisan issue in Congress, there is significant disagreement on how to do it. Many Republicans in Washington object, for example, to a large spending bill being pushed by Democrats, which would make some of the new social safety net spending permanent.
Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, released a statement Thursday saying, “President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats are ramming through trillions of wasteful spending and crippling tax hikes that will drive prices up even higher, kill millions of American jobs and drive them overseas, and usher in a new era of government dependency with the greatest expansion of the welfare state in our lifetimes.”
Many Democrats support further safety net expenditures, including robust federal efforts to guarantee food security. Representative Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, recently tweeted, “We have the ability to prevent hunger in America — it’s a policy choice.”