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Millions of children across the United States are already going hungry amid the economic recession spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, and emergency food assistance is set to expire on September 30 as Congress remains at an impasse over stimulus legislation. The House has already passed legislation that would renew the emergency food assistance, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to take it up in the Senate.
During the last week of August, up to 14 percent of parents reported that they could not consistently afford to feed their children as millions of people remain without work due to efforts to contain the coronavirus, according to federal data crunched by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). About 1 in 10 adults reported that their households did not have enough to eat at some point in the last seven days, including 19 percent of Black adults and 17 percent of Latinx adults. These figures add to reams of data showing that the pandemic and recession have disproportionally harmed people of color, who are more likely to work in low-paying industries that have suffered job losses.
Compare these numbers to figures from 2019, when only 3.7 percent of adults reported that their households had “not enough to eat” during the course of the year and about 1 percent of parents reported their children going hungry, according to CBPP’s analysis. Hunger persists across the country despite pandemic relief packages passed by Congress earlier this year, and millions of people are still struggling to pay rent, bills, mortgages, and for other basic needs. Despite federal aid packages passed earlier this year, in July one in four children lived in households that either could not afford enough food or could not afford to pay their rent or mortgage, or both.
Advocates on the front lines say they are seeing an alarming increase in the number of families going hungry in communities across the country. Megan Sandel, a physician at the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston Medical Center and investigator for Children’s HealthWatch, said the number of families showing up at the medical center has increased by 40 percent during the pandemic, and two-thirds report food insecurity. Parents who typically stretched their budget for food at the end of the month before the pandemic are now running out of money much earlier. A food pantry at the clinic is now open around the clock. Some parents have told Sandel that they sometimes only have enough food for their children, but not themselves, so they leave the room during mealtime so their kids don’t see that they are not eating.
“Parents will not actually eat in order to feed their children,” Sandel told reporters on Thursday, adding that food insecurity can harm a child’s ability to learn in school.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in March by bolstering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is commonly called food stamps. States were temporarily allowed to provide families emergency allotments to buy food up to the maximum allowed under SNAP. The law also established the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, or pandemic EBT, which provides money for food meant to replace free meals that lower-income children received in schools before they shut down or went virtual due to COVID-19.
Unless Congress acts, both of these temporary SNAP provisions will expire at the end of the month, leaving millions of unemployed workers, people with disabilities, elderly people and low-income parents with less money to buy food. The Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to slash funding for SNAP and push people out of the program with new rules for eligibility.
“The pandemic EBT is the most efficient way to get food into people’s hands,” Sandel said.
Sandel said Congress should renew the temporary SNAP provisions for the remainder of the pandemic and make some tweaks. Currently, the poorest households — which include about 5 million children – that already receive the maximum SNAP benefit did not receive additional nutrition assistance under the original stimulus legislation. Some schools are reopening with a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, and advocates say policymakers must ensure that pandemic EBT covers children who miss school meals because they are attending class virtually from home for a portion of the school week.
“Food hardship remained high after pandemic EBT benefits were issued … and Congress is poised to let this expire,” said Stacy Dean, CBPP’s vice president for food assistance policy.
The Democratic majority in the House passed a stimulus package in May that would increase the maximum SNAP benefit by 15 percent until September 2021. That legislation would also block the Trump administration from implementing eligibility rules aimed at pushing people out of SNAP. CPBB estimates that the 15 percent increase would help 16 million people, including about 7 million children, who already receive the maximum SNAP benefit and have not received additional assistance during the pandemic.
However, the House package was dead on arrival in the Senate, where McConnell and the Republicans balked at the price tag and then attempted to blame Democrats for holding up a stimulus bill as partisan negotiations on compromise legislation broke down in recent weeks. McConnell introduced a “skinny” stimulus package last week that contained no SNAP provisions and far less federal aid for individuals as well as local and state governments than the House proposed, but Democratic lawmakers blocked the bill. President Trump urged Republicans this week to “go for much higher numbers,” signaling a call to increase federal assistance as he eyes the November election.
On Tuesday the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus introduced a compromise package that includes the 15 percent SNAP increase as well as another round of direct stimulus checks, but Democratic leaders in the House say that package does not provide enough relief in other areas, including public health spending for combating the spread of COVID-19. In a joint statement, the Democratic chairs of eight House committees said the Problem Solvers’ proposal falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy.
“Unfortunately, today’s proposal retreats from these critical policies and fails to respond to additional issues that have emerged since May,” the chairs said. “When it comes to bolstering the public health system, supporting state and local governments, and assisting struggling families, the Problem Solvers’ proposal leaves too many needs unmet.”