As grim as the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic were in the United States, the policy response to the economic disruption caused by the disease had demonstrably positive effects in lowering poverty rates and reducing the number of Americans who did not have enough to eat.
Many of those programs have been allowed to expire as the intensity of the pandemic has waned, resulting in social ills such as poverty, especially child poverty, rising again. The latest expiration, that of a boost in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is expected to leave millions of Americans with less money to spend on food, even as inflation reduces their purchasing power.
In April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the federal government allowed states to add an emergency allotment (EA) payment to the benefits delivered by SNAP, which provides money for food to low-income households. It's these EA payments that will expire for all states this month; some states have already cut them.
In 2022, SNAP served more than 41 million Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program. SNAP benefits are determined by a formula that considers income and family size, so the monthly payments vary significantly by individual. But according to the USDA, the average individual benefit rose to just over $230 per month in 2022, from just under $130 in 2019.
Measuring the effect
During the pandemic, it was difficult to disentangle the effects of the various economic support mechanisms put into place, and determining how much the reduction in food insufficiency was attributable to the increased benefits, as opposed to increased unemployment benefits, was difficult.
Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research, studied what happened in 14 states at that time that had ended the EA benefits early. The result was a clear increase in hunger, she told VOA.
"When that happened, food insufficiency — the share of people who say that they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in the past week — increased by about 10%, and a little bit more like double that for a low-income population," she said. "So that's what I'm going to expect to happen as these benefits are eliminated in the rest of the nation this month."
Increased pressure on charities
The impact of the EA program was obvious to those on the front lines of the struggle to prevent hunger in the U.S.
"Increased SNAP benefits have helped millions of individuals and families keep food on the table, despite the severe economic impacts of the pandemic and inflation," said Vince Hall, chief government relations officer for Feeding America. "The end of this pandemic-era assistance nationwide means nearly $3 billion per month in food purchasing power will disappear from the American economy," he told VOA.
Hall, whose organization operates a nationwide chain of food banks, said Americans whose benefits are cut will inevitably turn to charitable organizations like his, which are already overburdened in their efforts to assist the more than 10% of U.S. households that are food insecure.
"Food banks are already under immense strain," he said. "Many continue to see demand for food assistance well above pre-pandemic levels while also facing continued supply chain disruptions, increased food purchase and transportation costs, and a decrease in the amount of food received from donations and from the federal government."
Benefit seen as too low
The return to pre-pandemic levels of food assistance payments is going to cause more widespread hunger because the normal benefit is too low to be effective for all recipients, said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research & Action Center.
Normal payment levels "are so low … that it's very unusual that a household has enough in their SNAP budget to be able to buy groceries throughout the entire month," she told VOA.
"The average benefit, now that we're going back to the regular way that they are calculated, is going to be on average $6 per person per day," Vollinger said, describing the amount of nutrition it provides as "meager."
For several years, there has been an effort in Washington to reform SNAP. In every Congress since 2016, Representative Alma Adams has introduced the Closing the Meal Gap Act, which would raise the minimum benefit and allow benefits to increase for individuals facing other economic stresses such as high medical bills. In 2020, she was joined by then-Senator Kamala Harris. In 2022, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand sponsored the bill in the Senate. It is unclear whether they will introduce the legislation again in the current Congress, and it would likely fail in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
In fact, some Republicans are considering cutting back the SNAP program beyond pre-pandemic levels. Representative Jodey Arrington, chair of the House Budget Committee, included the program in a list of areas where lawmakers might be able to cut spending as they negotiate with the Biden administration over raising the nation's borrowing limit.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Arrington advocated a get-tough policy on social spending by returning to the "Clinton-era welfare-to-work reforms." Those measures, in the 1990s, sharply increased restrictions on who was eligible for government benefits.
The prospect of cuts to SNAP has some advocates worried.
"This program should not be on the chopping block unless policymakers want to increase child poverty and undernutrition, widen inequality and exacerbate racial disparities," said Robert Greenstein, a visiting fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, at an event hosted by that organization Wednesday.
"That would have particularly adverse consequences for poor children," he said. "SNAP is the closest thing we have to an income floor under most people with low incomes. And its positive impact on children has been well documented."
Others said they were frustrated that policymakers were letting government programs go away despite evidence that they drastically reduced rates of poverty and hunger in the U.S. during the pandemic.
"We can dramatically reduce poverty if we want to," Schanzenbach, of Northwestern University, said. "I guess we have different priorities right now, and I think that that's a mistake, because there's great, convincing evidence that alleviating poverty is important for children.
"It helps them grow and develop, and ... get the basics that they need to flourish as adults. And I also think that it's in our moral best interest to reduce poverty to the extent that we can."