Terry Schwadron

Jul 17, 2020

4 min read

The Virus Has Worsened Hunger

Terry H. Schwadron

July 17, 2020

As a result of coronavirus, hunger rates in America are spiraling. And we’re not talking about it.

A continuing new study by economists at Northwestern University based on weekly Census Data Bureau data finds not only that about double the number of Americans are struggling to feed their families as in 2018, but that the situation — again — is far worse when looked at by race.

About one in five Whites are going hungry, while nearly four in 10 in Black and Latino households are now consider food insecure.

And while the numbers lag a bit from real time measurements, the data suggest that even the beginnings of re-opening the economy are not making a big dent in hunger.

Those lines at food banks are here to stay.

At base, the data reflect financial pressures of low-income neighborhoods made worse by the high number of jobs lost — and the continuous moves by Washington to cut food stamps.

Perhaps instead of talking about preserving Confederate statues, Donald Trump could be talking about whether people have enough to eat. Perhaps an “all-of” government” response to coronavirus would include better coordination between farmers dumping milk and food banks.

The government defines food insecurity as a household that’s either uncertain about or unable to get enough food to feed everyone under their roof at some point during the year because of a lack of money. During the pandemic, the Census Bureau has been asking households on a weekly basis about their ability to access food and feed their households during the past seven days.

When the earliest food insecurity estimates for children arrived in April, about six weeks into the pandemic, the numbers were so high that anti-hunger advocates and some economists thought they had to be wrong. But the early numbers have since been backed up by other national surveys.

This is a true crisis.

The Numbers

According to Politico.com, the percentage of families who are considered food insecure has surged across all groups and is already much higher than during the depths of the Great Recession. It is about double the 2018 numbers and triple in households with children. The racial gap between Latino and white households is worsening.

Economists tracking the numbers have been concerned by the rise in rates and dismayed that aid packages towards unemployment payments have not seemed to stem the tide. Congress has just gone on vacation for two weeks without resolving virus aid issues amid partisan wrangling. Democrats are again trying to win Republican support for a 15 percent increase in food stamp benefits.

Hunger among children can cause behavioral problems and lowered academic performance, which can lead to lifelong setbacks.

The last time the government formally measured food insecurity nationally was in 2018. At that time, about 25 percent of Black households with children were food insecure. Today, the rate is about 39 percent. For Latino households with kids, there has been an increase from 17 percent in 2018 to nearly 37 percent today. The rate for white households with children is significantly lower at 22 percent, but more than double what it was before the pandemic and much higher than it’s been since the government began measuring food insecurity two decades ago.

In late April, a Brookings Institution survey found that more than 17 percent of mothers reported that their children under the age of 12 were not getting enough to eat because the family couldn’t afford enough food — a 400 percent increase from the government’s last estimate in 2018.

Apparently, asking specifically whether children in the household are getting enough to eat, rather than asking generally about access to food for the household, is an important distinction. Even in food insecure households, adults tend to shield children from going without food by skipping meals themselves or making other sacrifices.

Aid in Washington?

A few weeks ago, the Census Bureau added a specific question to its weekly survey to ask whether children in the household were “not eating enough” because the family couldn’t afford enough food in the past week.

As the results have been alarmingly consistent. About 16 percent of households with kids were reporting that children were not eating enough in the previous week, according to the Brookings report.

Before Covid-19 hit, food insecurity rates had been falling across all groups over the past several years, although major racial disparities have persisted for decades.

When the issues raised by Black Lives Matter protests start to sprawl, hunger is one reason why. It is a reflection of income, neighborhood, and job opportunity splits as well.

It took the most of a decade to force food insecurity rates to decline after the last economic setback. The idea is that while coronavirus issues are exacerbating existing problems. Plus, Republicans have targeted food stamps as unneeded.

In the previous coronavirus aid packages, Congress has approved additional emergency SNAP payments for millions of families and also launched a new program called Pandemic EBT, giving families with school-aged children a one-time payment to help make up for school meals they qualified for but missed during widespread shutdowns this spring.

The boost targeted provides $5.70 more per child per every day of school missed. It’s not yet clear whether Congress will consider extending that program.

This should not be happening in America.