The economic turmoil, school closures, and massive spikes in unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year led to an unprecedented hunger crisis in the U.S.
By June 2020, about four months after shutdowns began, food insecurity in the U.S. had doubled overall and tripled among households with children. A Northwestern University study found that at one point during the pandemic, about a quarter of all U.S. households were experiencing food insecurity. Children in Black and Hispanic households were particularly affected, with higher rates of food insufficiency than other groups.
Long lines for food pantries evoked images seen only in history textbooks; communal refrigerators became more common in urban centers; restaurants and grocery stores rallied to help families in need. Hunger has long been a problem in America, albeit a largely hidden one. The pandemic exacerbated and exposed it.
President Joe Biden made ending hunger an integral part of his campaign last year. “It’s wrong, it’s tragic, it’s unnecessary,” he said of the food crisis. On his second day in office, he signed an executive order that directed his aides to “address the growing hunger crisis.” Last month he put words to action and increased food stamps by more than $1 billion a month, gave children in need $1 each day to purchase snacks, increased an allowance of fresh produce for pregnant women and children, and announced an ambitious summer school lunch program which would feed 34 million children.
The changes mark an extreme shift in policy around poverty and hunger. The Trump administration’s budgets regularly included sharp cuts to food assistance programs and tied benefits to work requirements.
The changes are “profound,” said James P. Ziliak, an economist at the University of Kentucky who studies nutrition programs, adding that they are on the magnitude of the founding of the modern food stamp program in 1977.
“The Rescue Plan is delivering food and nutrition assistance to millions of Americans facing hunger,” Biden said last week of his COVID relief bill, which he signed in early March. “And hunger is already sharply down in the United States.”
Census data for April 14 through April 28 (the most recent available) found 8.1% of American adults self-reported living in households that suffered from food scarcity, down from 10.7% in early March and 13.7% in December, before Biden took office.
Typically, the unemployment rate has the strongest correlation to food insecurity in the United States, said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, but the monthly unemployment rate in the U.S. has hovered consistently around 6% since January, indicating that other factors are at play in reducing food insecurity.
A boost in vaccinations, the reopening of the economy and schools, and stimulus checks all likely have contributed to the decline in hunger. But the Biden administration is using the recent data as proof that its recent expansion of safety net programs is working and to argue for another costly, and more permanent, increase in its next congressional push: the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, an ambitious $1.8 trillion economic recovery bill.
At a press briefing last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the drop in hunger was “a result of extending SNAP, as we did in the American Rescue Plan; creating a Summer EBT program…increasing our commitment to WIC; and basically making a down payment, if you will, on hunger reduction.
“The American Families Plan will allow us to cement the gains under the American Rescue Plan and, hopefully, impact and reduce hunger to the point, eventually, one day, where we won’t have to have a press conference about hunger,” he said.
While Republican opposition has balked at the size of the bill, there has so far been little opposition to the temporary expansion of food assistance programs.
Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute told Congress last month that the Biden administration had likely overstated the need for special assistance while understating the cost. “We will see efforts in the coming months to show that this legislation reduced poverty and increased employment—which I have no doubt the short-term data will show,” she said. “However, these short-term gains will mask long-term negative consequences that will be difficult to reverse—such as reduced labor force participation, more children born to single parents, and entrenched poverty for more Americans.”
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